France opposes U.S. NATO commander in Iraq
Associated Press

BRUSSELS, Belgium France dropped its objection to having a NATO training mission inside Iraq but refused Thursday to accept Washington's demand that its commander be an American.

A French diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the issue as the "last hitch" holding up agreement on the mission at NATO headquarters.

After two days of debate, NATO officials said they were optimistic the 26 NATO countries would reach a consensus by Friday on how the training both inside and outside Iraq would proceed. Ambassadors broke up Thursday night but planned to resume meeting early Friday.

"We are very close,'' a NATO official said.

Acknowledging that Washington was unlikely to back down on its demand for an American commander, Paris suggested postponing that aspect of the decision.

A U.S. official declined to comment. Washington has been adamant that the NATO mission commander be part of the U.S.-led coalition's chain of command, saying it is the best way to ensure the safety of the NATO mission. It also wants a decision now so that training can begin quickly in response to urgent pleas from the new Iraqi government.

NATO leaders agreed to the missions at their summit a month ago, but left details vague.

Although French President Jacques Chirac maintained he never agreed to a NATO footprint inside Iraq, those objections seemed to have dissipated.

In Paris, Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous said France agreed to sending a mission to Iraq in August. But he added the "nature of the link with the multinational force present in Iraq" remained unresolved.

"It would be abnormal and regrettable for this point to block the sending of the NATO mission," he said in a statement, suggesting the decision be put off until NATO receives another report in mid-September.

The French diplomat said about "five or six'' other countries supported France's position. NATO decisions are made by consensus.

The delays echoed the alliance crisis before the Iraq war, when France, joined for a time by Germany and Belgium, blocked agreement for weeks on defensive aid to Turkey because of their opposition to U.S. military action.

Another outstanding issue had to do with whether the mission should be commonly funded by all allies, like the NATO peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, or only by those sending troops. Diplomats said they thought that was easier to solve than the command question.

The command issue is especially sensitive for Paris and a handful of other countries that opposed the U.S.-led war and have refused to send troops to help with the aftermath.

The French fear that tying the NATO mission too closely to the U.S.-led forces could result in NATO becoming a "subsidiary of the coalition," and they worry that Washington will use the NATO force as an "exit strategy."

He pointed to Afghanistan and Kosovo, where protection is provided for different international forces without formal command links.

The "pre-mission" NATO intends to send Aug. 6 would include only 30 or so people, and report back to NATO headquarters Sept. 15.

So far NATO's role in Iraq has been limited to providing logistical backup to a Polish-led division working with the American troops. Although 16 NATO members already have some troops there, they are not under the NATO flag.