NATO leaders have opened a two-day summit in Istanbul, at which they are expected to approve a request from Iraq for the alliance to help train its security forces. The summit began just as the U.S.-led coalition handed over sovereignty to Iraq's interim government a few days ahead of schedule.
The sooner-than-anticipated handover took some of the allies by surprise. But it is not clear what effect it will have on how and when NATO will train the armed forces of Iraq's interim government.
Although there is a draft agreement among the allies to undertake the training mission, it is still not certain when the operation will begin and how many NATO personnel will be involved. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer says training will be conducted both inside and outside Iraq. But there are still differences to be resolved. France and Germany insist that NATO not have a formal presence in Iraq. The United States and Britain want the alliance to play a bigger role there.
This is the first NATO summit since the Iraq War caused bitter divisions among the allies, and the leaders of the 26 member states are trying hard to put on a show of unity. They are expected to agree to an expansion of the alliance's peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, a mission British Prime Minister Tony Blair calls NATO's top priority.
Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer, speaking in French at the summit's opening session, said that mission and the training operation in Iraq are part of the alliance's new role in dealing with 21st Century security challenges.
He said the allies have shown that they are firmly resolved to confront risks and threats to their security, well beyond NATO's traditional Euro-Atlantic zone of operation.
But NATO's efforts to find a post-Cold War role for itself have been hampered of late by the foot-dragging among European allies in providing troops and equipment to the peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan. The expansion of that force to the north and west of the country is seen as crucial for the holding of elections there later this year. Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, will be at the summit on Tuesday to personally urge the allies to guarantee security for the elections.
As the leaders gathered at the tightly protected summit site in downtown Istanbul, about 1,000 mainly leftist demonstrators wearing helmets and gas masks clashed with police guarding the outer security perimeter, about three-kilometers from the conference center. The demonstrators threw firebombs and stones at police. The police used tear gas and water cannon to try to disperse the demonstrators, who are protesting against the summit and President Bush's presence in Istanbul.