Spain and Poland push for Nato to take on Iraqi peace-keeping role

Nato is likely get an important new role in Iraq next year, it emerged yesterday, as Spain and Poland proposed that the transatlantic alliance assumed some peace-keeping responsibilities in the country.

The two nations, both of which have deployed troops to south central Iraq, raised the issue of greater alliance involvement during a meeting of Nato defence ministers in Brussels yesterday.

Although there was no formal proposal, Donald Rumsfeld, the United States Defence Secretary underlined America's enthusiasm for the idea, arguing that "the US is open to an expanded Nato role" both in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Nato officials say privately that the US is pressing hard for the alliance to take a leading role in Iraq, but is wary of making the case too publicly for fear of reawakening the bitter row over its decision to go to war .

Both Spain and Poland have a direct interest in handing over control of the international sector they control to the alliance. This would relieve them of replenishing their forces or finding other nations willing to replace them.

A senior US official said Washington "would look forward to Nato considering a much greater role", adding that the alliance might take over command of the multinational south central division. A Nato source argued that "there is an acceptance that, at some point, it is logical for Nato to get involved". Another source said a decision could be made as soon as next spring.

At present Nato has no staff in Iraq, although it did assist Poland when it began peace-eeping operations there.

Its prospects of getting more fully involved may depend on the success of efforts to hand back political power to the Iraqis. Almost all European countries have welcomed Washington's plans to speed up the timetable, though Paris wants faster transition.

The second factor is the alliance's success in improving its grip on peace-keeping operations in Afghanistan, where its International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) has struggled to assemble the necessary military hardware. One alliance diplomat said there would be little willingness to get involved in two, risky and under- resourced operations at once.

Although it has a mandate to expand its operations from Kabul to the rest of the country, Nato still does not have the 11 helicopters it needs. Nato's secretary general, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, announced yesterday that allies had offered six helicopters for the 5,700-strong force. But these include three German helicopters already there, which Berlin has offered to deploy beyond schedule, and three, as yet unconfirmed, from the Netherlands.

However other gaps are being plugged, in particular support services, and the staff and equipment needed to run Kabul airport.

In a remarkable sign of changing times, Serbia is offering military help to the Isaf force in Afghanistan - just four years after the country was the target of a bombing campaign launched by the alliance against the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.

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