Nato Summit: Cartoon row threatens to derail succession

Last-ditch talks held aimed at ending Turkish opposition to Dane's appointment as secretary general

Anders Fogh Rasmussen looked set to waltz into the job to succeed the secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, when his term runs out in July. But Turkey, as Nato's only predominantly Muslim member, threatened to derail long-standing plans for a grand announcement today, calling the 56-year old Dane's candidacy "unacceptable" because of the Danish cartoon crisis. Mr Rasmussen famously refused to apologise for caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed when they were printed in a Danish newspaper in 2006, triggering violent riots in some Muslim countries.

A Nato diplomat said allies are now scrambling to secure Turkey's backing during last-minute negotiations ahead of the two-day mega-summit hosted by France and Germany in the Rhineland, due to be attended by President Barack Obama. "All is not lost, we hope the Turks will give in at the last moment and we can still make it," he said. "This is of huge symbolic importance, it's like the candles on the Nato birthday cake. But it will come down to the wire."

Denmark has 700 troops in Afghanistan, mostly in Helmand, and although Mr Rasmussen has secured broad support from allies on both sides of the Atlantic, Turkish concerns over his image have been echoed privately by other countries, which point to the need to secure maximum Muslim support as part of Nato's Afghan mission. Mr Rasmussen has also spoken out against Turkish membership of the EU and in favour of Kurdish separatists.

"The point people are making is that Nato needs a new face with the Muslim world and all the issues that Denmark has faced in recent years will not help," said Dan Hamilton, director of the Washington-based Centre for Transatlantic Relations. "I don't think it's him personally – his credentials are impeccable. But it is a point that does need considering now Nato is looking for a new image." However, Mr Rasmussen now seems confident his bid will be successful as he officially announced his candidacy late last night. But diplomats say there is still a chance efforts will fail, in which case they will struggle to find a consensus candidate.

France and Germany blanch at the prospect of Nato-Russia relations taking a turn for the worse under the helm of the Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, the second favourite and an outspoken critic of Russia.

Mr Sikorski has the backing of fellow former Warsaw Pact nations such as Slovakia and Hungary and has softened his rhetoric, even going as far as suggesting Russia could one day join Nato. Yet Warsaw's strained relationship with Moscow and its willingness to host a US missile shield could bar his path at a time when the Alliance wants to avoid talk of a new Cold War.

"His previous position on things like the missile shield and the way he has lambasted Moscow make Mr Sikorski very problematic. These are major hurdles," said Dan Korski from the European Council on Foreign Relations.

This leaves Canada's Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who should not even be a candidate because of the time-honoured practice that the secretary-general post goes to a European with the top military job going to an American. "But rules are meant to be broken!" said Herman Schaper, the Dutch ambassador to Nato in Brussels. "Canada feels it has a raw deal as a key Nato ally without a top post and they have a point."

Although many feel it is time to reward Canada's leading role in the Afghanistan mission, Mr MacKay knows he stands only a slim chance. "I still have a lot to do at home and I know better than to count on anything in politics," he said during a recent visit to Brussels. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere may be a compromise choice, but he is handicapped as Norway is not a member of the EU.

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