CASTEAU, Belgium — The process of restructuring NATO along with new and ongoing operational commitments have alliance members hustling from one end of the theater to the next.

With NATO forces assuming in August the lead role in the U.N.-mandated International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the tempo isn’t expected to ease up anytime soon.

“This is like a basketball game,” U.S. Marine Gen. James L. Jones said Wednesday. “We are racing up and down the court.”

The supreme allied commander met with reporters after a two-day commanders conference at SHAPE headquarters in Belgium.

Commanders discussed an array of issues, from the pending deployment to Afghanistan to the ongoing effort to reorganize the alliance.

In addition, commanders addressed other matters, such as the fledgling NATO Response Force; the European Security and Defense Identity, an initiative that looks at the relationship between nations on both sides of the Atlantic and the current and future roles of European countries in security; and alliance support for Polish troops deploying to Iraq as part of an international peacekeeping force.

The 5,000-strong rapid response force should be ready by October, leaders said Wednesday.

“It’s important for people to see what it looks like,” Jones told a news conference. “We will stand it up and use it as an example.”

The force, which will integrate elite air, land and sea units from several nations under a common command, is at the heart of NATO’s efforts to develop a rapid, flexible response to terrorism and other threats and to project power well beyond its North Atlantic heartland.

First proposed by the United States last year, the force will be expanded in the future and could develop into a pool of tens of thousands of troops the alliance could call upon at short notice.

Jones, a strong supporter of NATO taking a more expeditionary approach to dealing with global security threats, said the force should be able to tackle a range of missions “from peacekeeping to crisis intervention.”

With respect to Iraq, Jones said there is no current plan or effort under way to have the alliance assume a leading role. The assistance and support being provided to Polish forces are simply about the alliance helping out one of its brethren.

While Iraq is on the minds of many, the purpose of the conference was to bring commanders together to discuss issues such as NATO restructuring, an effort designed to enhance coordination, management and responsibilities. The reorganization should be completed later this year.

“The transformation of NATO has to take place in a number of areas,” Jones told reporters.

That means changes are in store for those in the field as well.

Like the U.S. military, NATO wants its forces to be leaner and highly mobile, melding the assets of air, land and sea forces.

Reshaping NATO won’t happen overnight, Jones and other commanders indicated, but change is necessary as the alliance’s workload increases amid a changing world facing new challenges and opportunities.

Speaking at NATO’s military headquarters in southern Belgium, Jones sidestepped questions over a U.S. warning that the alliance may have to pull its headquarters out Belgium if the government does not change war-crimes laws that have targeted senior American civilian and military officials.

“This is a bilateral issue between the United States and Belgium,” he said. “It would not be appropriate for me to get involved.”

Jones said he did not feel threatened by the law.

NATO also decided Wednesday that representatives from the seven nations due to join the alliance next year will now routinely attend policy setting meetings. Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Latvia and Estonia will have observer status on the North Atlantic Council until they become full members in May 2004.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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