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NATO Unlikely to Expand Role in Iraq

The secretary general of NATO, George Robertson, says the alliance is not likely to expand its role in Iraq while it concentrates on a bigger peacekeeping deployment in Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has suggested NATO take on more duties in Iraq, but Mr. Robertson told British radio Tuesday the alliance is already under considerable strain in Afghanistan.

"It's not beyond the realms of possibility that next year at some point a bigger role in Iraq could be put forward by the countries, but it won't be put forward, in my view, until we've got Afghanistan right," he said.

About 5,700 NATO peacekeepers are deployed in Afghanistan. The alliance plans to move the force beyond the capital, Kabul, to several provincial cities.

In Iraq, NATO provides logistical support for some 9,500 troops from 17 countries in the Polish-led military sector in south-central Iraq.

Mr. Robertson, who is retiring at the end of this month, said the splits within NATO that saw France and Germany oppose the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq are beginning to heal. "The damage of last year's debates, and this year's debates, is now disappearing and a consciousness about the importance of making sure that post-conflict Iraq is dealt with is growing. There is a dynamic here, and things are changing all of the time, and it may well be that some of the countries that at the moment have kept their troops out of Iraq may, by the middle of next year, may have different views," he said.

Mr. Robertson also said that as the European Union moves to create a defense force with its own operational planners, care must be taken to avoid what he called "any form of competition" between NATO and the EU.

The EU would like a multi-national defense force capable of undertaking missions apart from NATO, but the United States opposes any independent EU military headquarters, which France and Germany have advocated.