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New NATO Talks Show Some Signs of Progress in Ending Impasse - 2003-02-16

NATO appears to be inching closer to a compromise that would break the alliance's deadlock over planning for the defense of Turkey in the event of a U.S.-led war against Iraq.

NATO ambassadors are holding fresh talks in hopes of finally resolving a damaging rift over what the alliance's role should be in any eventual war against Iraq.

A month ago, the United States proposed several ways in which NATO could offer indirect support for U.S.-led military action against Baghdad. It called on the allies to allow NATO's military planners to draw up contingency measures for Turkey's defense in case it were attacked by Iraq.

France, Germany and Belgium have, from the very beginning, blocked approval of the U.S. proposal. The three countries say approval of such a measure would put NATO on a war footing and undermine diplomatic efforts to solve the Iraq crisis peacefully.

The United States and the other 15 allies have denounced the holdouts, saying their move undermines the alliance's credibility, especially after Turkey formally requested assistance from its NATO partners to help it boost its defense.

Now, there are signs of a possible face-saving compromise to the impasse.

Belgium has proposed that, if NATO makes clear its plans to protect Turkey are strictly defensive and do not involve the alliance in war preparations against Iraq, it could drop its veto. Belgian diplomats say Germany would also go along with such a move. But what about France, the most recalcitrant of the three holdouts?

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson took the aid-to-Turkey issue Sunday not to the North Atlantic Council, on which all 19 allies sit, but to the Defense Planning Committee, of which France is not a member. France withdrew from the alliance's integrated military structure in 1966.

Mr. Robertson's idea is to get the committee to approve the Belgian proposal, so that planning can begin for Turkey's defense, and then have the council, including France, adopt a statement of political support for Turkey as a member of the alliance.

One NATO official says France could go along with the proposal because it would not have to approve military measures to support Turkey.

But some diplomats at NATO headquarters say they do not expect a deal until later in the week because the ambassadors have to discuss the compromise with their governments before they can sign on to it.