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BRUSSELS, Belgium — Forces from NATO may join U.S. troops in troubled Iraq following the handover to a new, sovereign government this summer — an idea welcomed by American forces taxed by increasingly savage attacks.

On Friday, Secretary of State Colin Powell appealed for NATO boots in Iraq during a visit to Brussels honoring the seven new alliance members from Eastern Europe.

“We don’t yet have a NATO role for Iraq the way we have for Afghanistan,” Powell told reporters, according to The Associated Press. “But it took time to get NATO to take a positive role, an alliance role, in Afghanistan. With respect to Iraq, we have not reached that point yet.”

Though Powell did not predict quick success in persuading NATO ministers to take up the cause, the likelihood of such a mission — long discussed among generals and diplomats — increased last week. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO’s secretary-general, chastised the Spanish for their intention to withdraw from Iraq, because the alliance, to which Spain belongs, is likely going there anyway.

“It was not in the most fortunate moment that Spain raised the intention to draw its troops from Iraq,” the secretary-general said during a visit to Budapest, Hungary, according to Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Scheffer said NATO was preparing to play a role in Iraq and “it may take a commanding role in a determined area.”

That area is likely Iraq’s south-central region, where Poland now leads an international force of nearly 10,000 troops. Whether European leaders can put the prewar controversies behind them and focus on postwar peacekeeping remains to be seen. The current thinking is that the alliance could assume the Polish command if Iraq becomes sovereign and the United Nations rules in favor of expanded alliance participation.

“The political conditions for NATO to take on a more structural role, if you will, are quite clear,” said NATO spokesman James Appathurai.

On Thursday, the White House announced it would seek a new U.N. resolution before turning over power to Iraqis on July 1. Appathurai said that a fledgling, but free, Iraqi government could then ask for alliance help in the form of troops.

“If they were to make a request, certainly it would be difficult for NATO not to respond,” Appathurai said.

Even without a new U.N. resolution, the Pentagon may see an opportunity for NATO in Iraq. A Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the military interprets last year’s U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483 as authorizing all member states to secure and rebuild Iraq. All NATO countries are members of the United Nations, and several — most obviously the United Kingdom — are already there.

Spain remains the biggest obstacle. Luis Rodriquez Zapatero, Spain’s prime minister-elect, plans to pull troops out of Iraq unless he sees a new U.N. mandate. Powell has said he is uncertain as to whether even that would be enough to placate Spain’s incoming Socialists. Nonetheless, NATO’s original opponents of the Iraq invasion now say they will support peacekeeping there if it were a sovereign country and if the mission were U.N.-approved.

“Both the German and French governments have said that if those two conditions were met, they would not block a NATO collective role in Iraq, which is encouraging,” said Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to the alliance. “Now this is a decision that’s not yet been made, and it might not likely be made for a month or two or three as we get closer to the Istanbul [Turkey] summit [in June]. But it’s something that we’re very interested in and would like to pursue.”

Burns believes the alliance can intervene in Iraq in a way both muscular and diplomatically palatable.

“NATO is one of the world’s most successful peacekeeping organizations, if not the most successful peacekeeping organization,” he said. “We’re certainly the strongest military alliance in the world. We have enormous power to do positive things, and so there’s a feeling at this headquarters that we ought to seriously consider such a role. It would keep the allies focused on Iraq. For many of them, it would be a way to stay in Iraq, because of course NATO has a great public support and parliamentary support across Europe.”

He also pointed to the alliance’s record of persuading non-member states — nations such as Ukraine, Russia, Egypt and Jordan — to send troops to its other peacekeeping missions.

Said Burns: “That’s a good template for what we want to do in Iraq.”


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