NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels are grappling with the thorny problem of how to get the alliance's European members to boost their commitment to NATO's training mission in Iraq and its peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan. But tensions with Russia over the situation in Ukraine have eased after both sides agreed to back free and fair elections.
NATO is setting up a training academy for Iraqi security forces but is having trouble coming up with the 300 instructors it says it needs there. NATO wants to have the facility up-and-running by the time Iraq holds elections in late January but, at present, it has only about 60 trainers and other personnel in the country.
A handful of allies led by Germany and France refuse to allow their military personnel to go to Iraq, even under the NATO flag, a sign that divisions within the alliance over last year's Iraq war still persist.
Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, attending his last NATO meeting, says ensuring that the Iraqi people can vote in free and fair elections is in the interests of all NATO nations. He says it is time to heal the rift over the war.
"There was some bad weather - let's put it that way - last year at the time the decision was made to go into Iraq," he said. "But now everybody has some interest in seeing that Iraq is put on a stable footing, it has its elections. And I think we can all come together to support that. NATO is setting up a training academy in Iraq. The European Union is making its contribution in financial means and other means. And, so, the President has made it clear that, in his second term, he will be reaching out to Europe and we want Europe to reach out to us."
Diplomats at NATO headquarters say Mr. Powell told his colleagues that President Bush will visit Brussels on February 22 to hold talks with NATO and European Union leaders and signal that he is intent on mending trans-Atlantic ties.
Mr. Powell and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer are also urging the allies to commit troops and equipment to the alliance's peacekeeping force in Afghanistan so that it can expand its operations into the western part of the country. So far, only Italy has agreed to make a major contribution. The secretary-general says the alliance's credibility is at stake in Afghanistan.
The Ukraine election crisis, which has widened a rift between Russia and the West, dominated a meeting between the NATO foreign ministers and their Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Russia had accused the West of using its insistence on free and fair elections as a stalking horse to meddle in Russia's sphere of interest, a charge Mr. Powell denies.
"In places like Georgia, places like the Ukraine, the only interest that the West has, the United States has, is for these nations to be able to choose freely how they will be led, by whom they will be led, and there is no reason for this to be seen as a competition between the West and Russia," he said. "Georgia and Ukraine, other nations that are finding their way forward on the path to democracy, should have good relations with Russia and should have good relations with the West."
The NATO foreign ministers Thursday patched up their differences with Russia, signing a joint statement calling for free and fair elections in the December 26 re-run of the presidential runoffs.
A day earlier, the NATO ministers held an unprecedented meeting with their colleagues from Israel and six Arab nations in an attempt to strengthen cooperation in fighting terrorism and other security threats.