NATO Expands Behind Soviet Border, Pledges to Help Disarm Iraq

AP White House Correspondent

PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AP) – Heeding President Bush’s call, NATO leaders pledged Thursday to help the United Nations “fully and immediately” disarm Iraq. They also redrew the political map of Europe, reaching behind the former Iron Curtain for seven new members.

Barely a decade after winning independence from Moscow, the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania joined former communist states Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia as the next wave of NATO states.

“Events have moved faster than we could possibly have imagined,” said Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas.

On the summit sidelines, Bush and his foreign policy team lobbied feverishly for an anti-Iraq NATO statement while urging individual allies to ante up troops and other military assistance for possible war against Saddam Hussein.

The results were mixed: Bush won partial victory on the Iraq statement while the war solicitations received lukewarm responses from allies inside and outside NATO.

In a four-paragraph statement, the 19-member alliance unanimously echoed the U.N. call for “severe consequences” should Iraq insist on retaining weapons of mass destruction.

The phrase is Bush’s license to wage war as a last resort, the White House said.

But the statement did not threaten collective military action by the 19-nation alliance nor did it prevent some allies _ particularly Germany and France – from distancing themselves from Bush’s zero tolerance position and even the document itself.

It did commit the alliance to taking “effective action to assist and support the efforts of the U.N.” That pledge was designed to make NATO’s logistical and diplomatic assets available to the United Nations, though it could be read as offering the alliance’s military support, said a senior Bush administration official.

That official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said neither the United States nor its allies envisions using NATO’s military capacity to help enforce the resolution.

On the summit’s opening day, Bush sought out his most supportive allies – and froze out the reluctant ones – to urge a united stance against Saddam.

“If he chooses not to disarm, we will work with our close friends, the closest of which is Great Britain, and we will disarm him,” the president said after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair said his country “will do what’s necessary” to enforce the U.N. resolution.

The United Nations has given Saddam until Dec. 8 to list his weapons of mass destruction. The White House says his holdings are vast, and failure to report any of them could trigger war.

While Bush told leaders Saddam may avert war by complying, Condoleezza Rice said there’s little chance of that.

“We haven’t seen anything yet which suggests that Iraq … is a leopard that’s changing its spots,” said Bush’s national security adviser.

Meeting beneath the tall spires of this Bohemian city, few NATO leaders joined Bush and Blair in speaking forcefully against Iraq – a sign that while allies support the U.N. effort in theory, they remain highly skeptical about fighting Saddam.

“Our position is completely clear: We will not take part in a military strike against Iraq,” German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said.

In private talks, French President Jacques Chirac told Bush that a war against Iraq requires a second U.N. Security Council resolution, putting him at odds with the U.S. position.

Canadian Defense Minister John McCallum also expressed caution. Asked if he would prefer a NATO-led operation against Iraq to a U.S.-led mission, he said: “Our first choice is that there’s no operation at all.”

A day before traveling to Russia, Bush courted President Vladimir Putin’s support by vowing to honor Moscow’s economic interests in Iraq if a U.S. military operation ousts Saddam.

“We understand that Russia (has) got interests there, as do other countries. And, of course, those interests will be honored,” Bush told NTV.

Baghdad owes Moscow $7 billion in Soviet-era debt.

The Sept. 11 attacks improved U.S.-Russian relations and softened Putin’s opposition to NATO expansion. The strikes refocused NATO, too.

Created to confront Russia, the alliance is rebuilding to fight terrorism.

“A deadly cocktail of threats is now menacing free societies,” NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said.

Hours later, NATO leaders approved a U.S.-backed plan to create a pool of crack troops in a 20,000-strong rapid-response force to tackle terrorists worldwide, burying NATO’s old reluctance to act outside its established European and North Atlantic spheres of influence.

The strike force won’t be ready for a war in Iraq, so individual countries are being asked to help out.

“The United States has consulted a good many countries in the world, pointing out the reality that the only reason inspections are going on is the possibility of using force,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters at the summit.

Initial reaction was lukewarm:

  • Germany said it was reviewing the U.S. overture “with a view toward Germany’s non-participation.”
  • Japan would not even confirm receiving such a request from Washington.
  • Saudi Arabia has assured the United States it would provide logistical help in the event of war with Iraq, a U.S. official said in Washington.

    In frustration, Bush suggested for a second day in a row that some old-line NATO allies have a stale view of the world. He said new NATO countries, eager to protect liberty, “will refresh the spirit of this great democratic alliance,” the president said.

    The seven invitees will join the alliance in May 2004 after their legislatures and those of the 19 current members ratify the expansion. Three other candidates – Macedonia, Albania and Croatia – were told to wait.

    “It would be no exaggeration to compare today’s decision on the enlargement of NATO with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” said Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov.