Britain raised the prospect of Nato eventually taking over peace-keeping in Iraq yesterday, while the European Union welcomed Washington's plans to return political control of the country to Iraqis.
Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, said that while there was no "early likelihood" of a significant new role in Iraq for the transatlantic alliance, he "would not rule it out" as a longer-term prospect.
His comments come after the release of a US timetable for efforts to transfer political authority to a provisional government by June, and in the run-up to today's visit to Brussels of the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell.
A statement from the EU's foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels stressed "the importance of a timing [of transfer of power] adapted to the situation". Although they did not mention the date of the change of status, the ministers noted "with satisfaction" the Iraqi Governing Council's endorsement of forming a provisional government by June.
But that was as far as the EU's unity went. The French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, said that the timetable was too long. In an interview, he urged the Americans to have a provisional government in place by the end of this year.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said the timetable had to take account of the "appalling terrorism" and the security situation in Iraq.
He said: "What we have to ensure is that there is as speedy as possible a transfer of power to the Iraqi people, but one that is done in a way that ensures the future prosperity and security of the Iraqis, and not the reverse."
Mr Powell might test the water on the issue of Nato involvement in Iraq when he meets the alliance's secretary general, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, in Brussels today.
The US Secretary of State is visiting Brussels for meetings with EU foreign ministers and the issue of Iraq is likely to feature prominently in talks.
Antonio Martino, the Italian Defence Minister, said that after the death of 18 Italian servicemen in Iraq last week the "international community should be involved as much as possible".
The "international community must help to resolve the problem", he said, describing the murdered Italians as victims of terrorism, not resistance.
But differences over the pace of the transfer of political power is the main obstacle to Nato involvement. The alliance was bitterly divided during the run-up to the war although it subsequently agreed to provide assistance to Poland's peace-keeping efforts.
Diplomats say that Nato would only want to become involved if it became clear that international divisions had been resolved, as they were before Nato deployed in Afghanistan. One alliance diplomat said: "Until the thing is thoroughly legitimised in the UN it is very difficult to see Nato take it on."
In those circumstances one possibility would be a UN-mandated, but Nato-led, force similar to the one stationed in Bosnia.
Mr Hoon said that the UK would be willing to take the lead in an EU military mission in Bosnia, if Nato agreed to make way for a European force. EU defence ministers agreed to set up a European defence agency designed to find ways of co-ordinating and making the best use of EU nations' defence budgets.
The EU as a whole spends less than half of what Washington spends on defence, and its military capability amounts to only 10 per cent of what America gets for its money because of equipment duplication and incompatibility.Reuse content