Defense experts say it could take NATO a long time to recover from the divisions over how to deal with Iraq between the United States and Britain on one side, and France and Germany on the other.

The NATO alliance has plunged into crisis over a decision by France and Germany, also backed by Belgium, to block a U.S. proposal for the alliance to make plans to defend Turkey in the event of war with Iraq.

Senior U.S. officials called the veto plan "inexcusable." And after it happened, the U.S. ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns said it created "a crisis of credibility."

In practical terms, Washington can go ahead on its own to provide Turkey with air and missile defense systems. But defense analysts say the United States wanted NATO backing to give more political weight to Washington's tough line on disarming Iraq.

Instead, the alliance is divided. Britain and the United States say Iraq will only disarm under credible threat of military attack. France and Germany argue that U.N. weapons inspectors can ensure the removal of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction if they have enough time.

An arms control expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, Gary Samore, says the future of the transatlantic alliance now hinges on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"If Saddam fails to cooperate or if he obstructs the inspections, then I think it will be possible for the key transatlantic countries to join together and have a common position on the use of force," said Mr. Samore. "But if on the other hand Iraq continues to provide enough cooperation to prevent consensus in New York, and the U.S. goes to war without explicit U.N. Security Council blessing, I think it could lead to a pretty substantial break in the alliance. Not to say that it could never be healed, but it certainly will become a problem that will be with us for some time."

The defense spokesman for Britain's opposition Conservative Party, Michael Ancram, told British radio the basic concept of NATO as a mutual defense pact is thrown into question.

"I do not think it spells the end of NATO, but I think it does raise question marks about the commitment to defend each other. If I was Turkey, I would be very surprised as a member of NATO as I suddenly learn that my partners in NATO say I will not be helped to defend myself. I think it is a very serious thing that they have done," Mr. Ancram said.

Some experts see the dispute at NATO in a broader context. They say France wants to lead a European alliance with Germany and Russia as a counterweight to American superpower dominance.

Another factor, noted by defense analyst Paul Beaver, is that France has significant oil interests in Iraq that it does not want to lose to the Americans.

"The key to this is, and the French know this, is because the Americans want to use Turkey as a way into Iraq. And the French want to stop anything that might be that way because the French have their eyes on their relationship with the Arab world, and the other important thing, oil," Mr. Beaver said.

In the meantime, the experts say the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf region should be completed by early March. They say that could put more pressure on diplomats and NATO officials to try to overcome their differences as soon as possible in order to maintain transatlantic unity.