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NATO Umbrella Could Keep Spanish Troops in Iraq....

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NATO Umbrella Could Keep Spanish Troops in Iraq

Tue Mar 16, 2004 09:25 AM ET

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By John Chalmers

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A U.N.-mandated NATO presence in Iraq could be a face-saving formula for Spain's incoming Socialist prime minister as allies put pressure on him not to withdraw troops from the country, diplomats said Tuesday.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has said he will probably withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops, who are a key component of the 9,000-strong multinational stabilization force in Iraq's central-south division.

This would be a major setback for the United States, which wants NATO to take command of this division some time after sovereignty is returned to the Iraqi people on June 30. Even France and Germany, Europe's fiercest critics of the Iraq war, had backed away from challenging Washington's ambition.

"Spain's position now complicates things for NATO," said one diplomat at the U.S.-dominated military alliance.

"Beyond the political question there is now a question of whether there will be sufficient military capability: you've seen how difficult it has been to get forces for Afghanistan."

However, the two biggest contributors to the stabilization force -- Poland and Ukraine -- have vowed not to pull their soldiers back, and diplomats say Zapatero may change his mind if NATO takes over with a clear U.N. Security Council mandate.

Indeed, Zapatero's first comments on the matter after his weekend election victory were ambiguous.

He repeated a campaign pledge to pull out the troops if the United Nations did not take charge by mid-year and promised wide political consultation before setting any plan in stone.

"Even this incoming Spanish government would not be willing to...abandon Iraq, and so putting its troops under a NATO umbrella could be a face-saving formula," said one diplomat.


Others said Zapatero would quickly realize that the tack adopted in recent months by Paris and Berlin -- with which he had promised to restore "magnificent" ties -- has been one of rapprochement with the United States.

"The Spanish are going to be lent on by a lot of people, including a lot of its friends," said one NATO observer.

Alliance officials denied a report in the Financial Times, however, that Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer would ask Madrid to reconsider its position: "That's not correct, the political decisions are not for him to make," said one.

If Zapatero fell into line with France and Germany, he would probably adopt their position that for NATO to take a role in Iraq there must be a request from a sovereign government and a U.N. Security Council resolution mandating the mission.

"The request could come on the day the government takes office and it could be specifically conditional on a U.N. mandate, which would really speed things up," said one diplomat.

This could put NATO under unwelcome pressure to plan a new operation and make sure it is properly resourced when allies -- pleading that their armed forces are overstreched by operations across the globe -- are already dodging calls for troops and equipment to expand the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.

But diplomats said the Iraq operation would be much easier for NATO to resource than finding helicopters and other costly equipment for new military teams in Afghan provinces.

"Yes there is some doubt about the Spanish contingent but otherwise the Iraq force is there," said one. "It will just be a question of changing their badges and flags to 'NATO'."

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