NATO floats Mideast plan

France threatened Wednesday to block NATO's Iraq mission.

NATO's recently announced plan to spread its influence into the volatile Middle East is likely to face deep suspicion from the larger Arab states, even as the wealthy but vulnerable countries of the Gulf signal approval.

The organization views the region as key to global stability and hopes to develop a security dialogue with willing Arab countries. Still, analysts say, NATO's ambitions remain limited, given the Arab perception that the alliance is little more than an extension of US military policy. Commitments elsewhere and internal rifts over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq also will ensure a low-key approach, they say.

It became clear Wednesday that divisions still exist over NATO's intention to send a training mission to Iraq. The Associated Press reported that France threatened to block the plan at a meeting in Brussels to finalize the agreement.

Since 1994, NATO has held low-level talks with seven countries - Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Mauritania - as part of the alliance's Mediterranean Dialogue. But at last month's NATO summit in Istanbul, the 26-member alliance agreed to expand its commitment to the Middle East.

"We will make an offer ... to open a security dialogue with interested countries of the broader region of the Middle East," said NATO Secretary-General Jag de Hoop Scheffer.

The alliance is still redefining itself in the wake of the cold war, gradually expanding its influence beyond its traditional confines Europe. NATO's Middle East ambitions come as the alliance struggles to meet its other commitments in Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan.

"They are not looking to open up a new Pandora's box of problems but looking at particular areas where they can make a difference.... Their ambition is quite limited and quite pragmatic," says Daniel Neep, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Additionally, NATO's peacekeeping abilities have been questioned, not only in Afghanistan, where its control does not extend much beyond the capital, Kabul, but also in Kosovo, where the alliance has been accused of failing to protect Serbs from Albanian mobs. But analysts say that the risk of overcommitment will not apply to NATO in the Middle East, as there are no plans for major troop deployments.

"No one in NATO sees it as a major initiative but something that starts at a reasonably low level," says F. Stephen Larrabee, who holds the chair in European Security at the RAND Corp. in Washington. "They're not trying to solve all the problems of the region."

The areas NATO has in mind for potential cooperation include military training, advice on civilian-military affairs, joint exercises, disaster-relief operations, participation in NATO's antismuggling operation in the Mediterranean, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism training.

Given the security crisis in Saudi Arabia, the turmoil in Iraq, and lingering fears of Iran, some of the smaller Gulf states are willing to build ties to NATO. "Qatar believes that the presence of NATO will enhance the security in the region in general," says Hassan Ansari, head of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University. "If NATO is really interested in stability in this part of the world, it should without hesitation move in."

But those views are not shared by some of the larger Arab countries who resent the intrusion of the West into Arab affairs. "There's a deep distrust for NATO," says a European defense attaché in Beirut.

Turkey's decision to forbid the US-led coalition from using the country as a launch pad for the invasion of Iraq last year "was a fright for everybody," the diplomat says, underlining the importance of securing base rights in the region.

"I think without a shadow of a doubt that NATO is looking for a footprint, places from which to operate," the diplomat says.

NATO is still struggling over internal divisions generated by the Iraq war, when France and Germany led opposition to US plans to oust Saddam Hussein.At the Istanbul summit, NATO accepted a request from Iraq's interim government to help train the new Iraqi Army.

Then there is the other major conundrum of the Middle East - the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. NATO secretary-general de Hoop Scheffer has signaled caution over an early intervention. Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the Istanbul summit, he said that dispatching a NATO stabilization force would first require a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

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