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ABOARD THE SPANISH FRIGATE SANTA MARIA — NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson said Thursday that alliance rifts triggered by the U.S.-led war in Iraq are quickly disappearing.

“I not only see them fading away, I see a sense of unity coming back quite dramatically,” Robertson said.

The NATO chief pointed to the organization’s unanimous approval to send troops to Afghanistan and help Poland set up a peacekeeping headquarters in Iraq as evidence that the alliance’s wounds were healing. He made his comments during a visit to the Spanish frigate commanding NATO operations in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Before the war, France, Germany and Belgium punctuated their anti-war stance by refusing to send troops to Turkey. There also were divisions inside Europe. French President Jacques Chirac strongly criticized and warned Central European countries from siding with the United States, drawing the ire of the Bush administration.

Robertson said the alliance has largely moved beyond the disagreements over the war.

“Of course, there were wounds at the time and we were affected by these divisions of opinion — just as the [United Nations] was, the [European Union] was, the Arab League was, other organizations.

“But my view is, of the evidence that I could follow, that NATO has healed those wounds quicker than others, and we are in business in different circumstances a long way away from where we used to be operating.”

Robertson arrived at Naval Station Rota — a Spanish base shared with the U.S. military — on Thursday morning before boarding a Spanish helicopter for the frigate. He landed on the Santa Maria as it cruised toward the Strait of Gibraltar.

Since March, NATO has been escorting and protecting commercial ships in the strait, a risky choke point between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The escorts are an add-on to NATO’s surveillance and patrol mission, dubbed Operation Active Endeavour, in the eastern Mediterranean.

Fears of a terrorist attack against Western ships prompted the escorts in the strait. Robertson said he wanted to visit the ships and the sailors to highlight the value of the job being done by NATO members.

“Like so many others, they’re on the front lines against terrorism,” he said. “We know there is a threat.”

He added that the mission in the Mediterranean has already seen some results by collecting intelligence on suspicious ships and reducing illegal activity. Since Operation Active Endeavour began Oct. 26, 2001, illegal immigration in the region has dropped 50 percent.

“We believe that we have affected terrorists’ behavior but we have also stopped other streams of illegality, which have threatened stability in the whole of this region as well.”

In addition to meeting some of the Spanish sailors aboard, Robertson expressed his condolences to those who died in Monday’s plane crash in Turkey. Sixty-two Spanish soldiers returning from peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan were among the 75 killed in the crash.

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