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Senators' call for NATO in Iraq will be hard for Bush to ignore
By John Yaukey | GNSWASHINGTON - The recent message from the Senate floor to the White House could not have been more loud and clear: American forces need help in Iraq.
In a striking 97-0 vote late Thursday, the Senate passed a resolution asking the president to approach NATO for help on the ground in Iraq with a peacekeeping force similar to the one deployed in the Balkans.
The Senate's resolve takes the debate over involving NATO from the Sunday talk shows and editorial pages and drops it square on the desk of President Bush, now traveling in Africa.
It turns up the heat on the Bush administration, already feeling pressure for failing to find the banned weapons it claimed Iraq had and for accusing Iraq of trying to buy uranium from Africa, which turned out to be groundless.
Meanwhile, the American body count in Iraq continues to rise, while the former theater commander told lawmakers as many as 145,000 U.S. troops could be peacekeeping there for two to four years.
``Ask NATO. Ask them please, come help,'' Sen. Joe Biden, leading Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, implored Bush from the Senate floor. ``Make this a NATO operation with a U.S. commander with a U.S. helmet, with us in charge, but get more firepower in there.''
The administration thus far has been hard to pin down on its position concerning NATO involvement. But it's clear the Bush hawks are reluctant to share authority in Iraq, fearing conflicts with countries such as France that have less ambitious plans for the Middle East.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently frustrated lawmakers trying to determine whether the administration was actively seeking the treaty alliance's help.
Rumsfeld said NATO countries, most notably Britain and Poland, are already supplying 12,000 troops and will send another 30,000 by summer's end.
``I have no problems with NATO getting involved,'' he said.
But after a grilling before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld acknowledged that Defense Department officials had not directly spoken with anyone at NATO about involvement in Iraq since December, months before the war.
The case for NATO
The model for a possible NATO deployment much like the one Biden described is already unfolding in Afghanistan, where alliance commanders are preparing to take over the International Security Assistance Force and work alongside U.S. troops.
That said, there are critical differences between Afghanistan, where American forces are merely seeking to establish stability and a bulwark against terrorists, and Iraq, where troops are entrenched in full-blown nation building based on a model designed by the Bush administration.
``A lot depends on the precise activities proposed for NATO to undertake in Iraq,'' said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former senior staff member at the National Security Council. ``One of the critical questions is what happens with the command structure.''
Bush has made that clear: It remains fully in the hands of U.S. Central Command, which ran the combat operations.
There are no indications thus far that NATO would reject working under U.S. command.
NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson recently told leading members of Congress that the alliance is willing to step in, but it has not yet been approached in any meaningful way.
The alliance is already inching toward involvement in Iraq, agreeing last month to provide military support for some 8,000 Polish troops training to join the peacekeeping mission.
``The whole world has a stake in Iraq,'' said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. ``It's a mystery to me why the administration has not reached out to NATO.''
For one reason, an open appeal to NATO would force the Bush administration to eat crow.
Before, and even during the war, administration officials were confident the occupation would hit only predictable and surmountable snags. As recently as late April, as the war was winding down after the capture of Baghdad, war planners were talking about reducing the American military presence in Iraq to less than two divisions - roughly half the peak combat force.
All that talk has ceased.
``We haven't won (the war),'' Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, recently reminded the White House. ``We're in it.''
And then there is the prickly question of France.
The French factor
Bringing NATO into Iraq means embracing France at some level.
It was France that led the opposition to the war in the United Nations Security Council last winter, foiling efforts by the Bush administration to get passage of a resolution explicitly endorsing the use of force against Iraq.
That put a chill on the already tepid transatlantic relationship, but it didn't end there.
As France built opposition to war against Iraq, it won support from two of its neighbors, fellow Security Council member Germany and NATO member Belgium.
This complicated U.S. efforts in NATO to secure approval of a plan to defend alliance member Turkey in the case of a U.S.-led war on Iraq.
Turkey was crucial in early U.S. plans for establishing a northern front in Iraq.
Turkey ultimately refused to let U.S. troops deploy from across its southern border into Iraq, greatly complicating the war effort with implications that may still be reverberating.
A strong U.S. front north of Baghdad early in the war might have prevented what a growing number of experts and even Bush hawks suspect: that Saddam Hussein escaped, possibly north to his home village of Tikrit.
All this has raised questions about whether the United States can secure the kind of support from NATO in the future that it enjoyed when the Cold War bonded the alliance.