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US Ambassador to NATO Optimistic About Alliance's Future Despite Iraq War Rifts - 2003-04-01

The U.S. Ambassador to NATO said he believes the western alliance will survive deep rifts over the U.S.-led war to disarm Iraq. Ambassador Nicholas Burns testified before a Senate panel Tuesday as Secretary of State Colin Powell prepares to discuss the war with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels later this week.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee expressed their concerns to Ambassador Burns about the dispute over Iraq that has divided the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The top Democrat on the panel, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, said NATO is facing "a crisis." He said, "We are faced with a quandary and a quantitatively new decision and a new situation, in which the very fundamentals of the alliance are being questioned, unlike any time before. We had better figure out how to respond to it."

France, Germany and Belgium vehemently oppose the U.S.-led war, which is supported by Britain, Spain and Portugal.

While NATO is not playing a role in the war, it is deploying air defense missiles and surveillance planes to Turkey to protect any ally against an Iraqi attack during the conflict.

France, Germany and Belgium blocked even that limited action for six weeks, arguing it was premature and would, in their view, legitimize war without United Nations approval.

The action angered the United States. Ambassador Burns said, "We were very strongly opposed to the view of France and Germany and Belgium. We thought the fact they held out, and blocked discussions, we thought that was dangerous and obstructionist."

Ambassador Burns said once the war is over, there will have to be efforts made to restore unity to NATO. That, he said, will be up to member nations, especially France, which has been the strongest opponent of the war.

"France in particular has got to decide how it can show us that it wants to be part of the future of the alliance, that it wants to work with us, that it wants to be part of the solution, a country that can say 'yes' to NATO, not just 'no'," Mr. Burns said.

Ambassador Burns said the United States would like to see a greater role for NATO outside Europe, including the reconstruction of a post-war Iraq.

France and Germany, however, oppose a NATO role in Iraq after the war, favoring instead the United Nations taking the lead in the effort.

Ambassador Burn's appearance before the Senate panel comes as NATO is preparing for another round of expansion. The alliance last November invited seven eastern European nations to join next year. They include Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

Ambassador Burns urged the Senate to support the new candidates for NATO membership, saying they have completed the required military, economic and democratic reforms. He also noted the seven countries have been very supportive of the U.S.-led military action in Iraq.

Committee chairman Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, agrees saying, "The candidates have worked hard to improve their military capabilities. They have taken steps ranging from developing a peacekeeping capacity to acquiring the equipment and skills necessary for high intensity conflict. All seven have been supportive of coalition military efforts in Iraq," he said.

Ambassador Burns said expanding NATO to include the seven nations would make the alliance a stronger defense organization.