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New NATO Chief Pledges Focus on Afghanistan - 2004-01-05

NATO's new secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, says he sees a possible role in Iraq for the alliance. But he stresses that it should first concentrate on its mission in Afghanistan, where it is planning to extend its peacekeeping force beyond the capital, Kabul. The former Dutch foreign minister says he wants to ensure unity among the western allies, who were deeply split last year over the U.S.-led Iraq war.

Arriving at NATO headquarters in Brussels for his first day on the job as head of the alliance, Mr. De Hoop Scheffer was peppered with questions about a future NATO role in Iraq.

The former Dutch diplomat, who succeeds Britain's George Robertson as secretary-general, said a decision on a NATO presence in Iraq will have to wait, but cannot be excluded. "That will depend on the political developments as they take place and as they take shape in Iraq in the coming months," he said.

France and Germany, the two NATO allies that were the leading opponents of the Iraq war, have reacted cautiously to a U.S. proposal that the alliance take charge later this year of a multi-national division in Iraq that is now led by Poland. That force is getting logistical support from NATO.

Diplomats at NATO headquarters say France and Germany could swing behind the idea, as the U.S.-led occupation authorities turn over more power to Iraqis. The subject is likely to be brought up at a NATO summit next June in Istanbul, at about the time sovereignty is due to be transferred to a provisional Iraqi government.

NATO, which was set up in 1949 to counter the Soviet threat, and will admit seven former communist states later this year, has begun operating beyond its traditional Euro-Atlantic theater, and is now in charge of a multi-national peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.

As far as Mr. De Hoop Scheffer is concerned, boosting NATO's capabilities in Afghanistan as it seeks to broaden its mission beyond Kabul should be the alliance's immediate priority.

After Afghans agreed on a new constitution Sunday, the NATO chief said, the world community cannot afford to lose the battle to stabilize the war-torn country. "The focus, primary focus, at the moment, should be on Afghanistan," he said. "We've heard the news last night of the result of the Loya Jirga, and I think the alliance should pursue what was set in motion, and that is focus on Afghanistan."

Turning to another area, the Balkans, Mr. De Hoop Scheffer says the recent success at the polls of hard-line nationalists in Serbia should not affect NATO's plans to turn over its peacekeeping mission in Bosnia to a European Union force.