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NATO Summit Expected to Focus on Iraq, Afghanistan - 2004-06-23

Next Monday and Tuesday, heads of state and top military officials from 26 countries are scheduled to meet in Istanbul for a NATO summit expected to focus on the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq and expansion of the alliance's force in Afghanistan.

The NATO summit is taking place just before the handover of sovereignty in Iraq and heads of state including President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are expected to discuss a possible expansion of the group's role.

President Bush said earlier this month he doesn't expect NATO countries to offer more troops for Iraq, however some nations may be willing to help train and equip the new government's security forces.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer says a recent U.N. Security Council resolution unanimously supporting the Baghdad government may pave the way for the alliance to do more in Iraq.

"Let's not redo the discussion we have had in the run-up to the war in Iraq. I think if, on the basis of that resolution, the Iraqi government, the U.N. or the Iraqi government would come to NATO and ask NATO if we could do anything, then NATO should not turn a blind eye to such a request from what is a legitimate and sovereign Iraqi government," he said.

Philip Gordon, a former director for European Affairs at the National Security Council and currently a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution, says he doesn't expect the NATO alliance to agree at the summit to any major role in Iraq.

"For the summit, I think at best, its endorsement of the transfer of sovereignty, maybe a NATO role for training Iraqi security forces, but that is really minimalist because NATO per se doesn't train anyway, it would just be NATO members," he said. "If we are lucky, lucky in the sense if you believe a NATO role would be good, an agreement [may be reached] to task the Secretary General to explore options of how NATO at some future date might be used in Iraq."

NATO members may be more enthusiastic about expanding the alliance's force in Afghanistan.

United Nations officials, aid organizations and Afghan leaders have all strongly urged the alliance to expand its 6,500-member force ahead of planned September elections.

NATO took command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan last year, its first mission outside Europe.

NATO leaders have complained that member nations have been slow to provide additional troops and resources.

NATO commanders in Afghanistan are trying to set up five Provincial Reconstruction Teams, known as PRT's, in northern Afghanistan before the elections.

The alliance controls only one PRT so far, a German group of soldiers stationed in the town of Kunduz.

Soner Cagaptay, a specialist with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says he expects NATO leaders in Istanbul will announce an increase in their support for the force in Afghanistan.

"The idea with Afghanistan is that you learn from experience, things that have worked, the PRT's, Provincial Reconstruction Teams, are liked by many people," said Mr. Cagaptay. "They think it is a great idea. They think it is a successful marriage of civilian-military teams. It is also great for PR [public relations] because you can convince the people that you are working for them when you actually do projects on the ground and I think people would like to see this idea pursued further in Afghanistan and also elsewhere if NATO does get involved."

Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution says the presidential election in the United States will have an impact on the Istanbul summit.

Mr. Gordon says relations between the United States and Europe are still strained because of the war in Iraq.

"I think that for a lot of Europeans this relationship is on hold until the American election for a range of reasons. President Bush is not particularly popular in Europe right now, which is the understatement of the day," he said. "Therefore, leaders don't want to help him politically by allowing him to do what I said that presidents can normally do with a summit, which is show themselves as presiding over a unified western alliance. They are not in the mood to allow him to do that."

The Istanbul summit will be the first since NATO expanded from 19 to 26 countries.

Security is expected to be tight for the two-day meeting, amid fears of terrorist attacks and large demonstrations.