Originally created 02/20/03

NATO approves urgent deployment of defensive systems to Turkey



BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Days after breaking a stalemate over planning in case of war with Iraq, NATO on Wednesday approved the urgent deployment of AWACS radar aircraft, Patriot missile systems and chemical-biological response units to Turkey.

The decision was made by the same Defense Planning Committee that convened Sunday to approve the start of military planning to defend Turkey, the only NATO ally bordering Iraq. The committee excludes France, which opposed the move.

"Alliance solidarity has prevailed," said U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns. "By taking this step, NATO has lived up to its core responsibility ... to respond to an ally in a time of threat."

NATO officials said the 18 ambassadors took less than 15 minutes to back a recommendation from alliance military experts to "implement defensive measures as a matter of urgency."

"We'll move ahead very quickly," NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson told Associated Press Television News. "Turkey will get what it asked for and what it needs."

It was unclear when the AWACS would leave their base in Geilenkirchen, Germany. Officials said it would take only two or three days for the multinational crews to prepare and fly down to Turkey once the orders came.

Three batteries of Dutch Patriot-missile defense systems left for Turkey by sea this week and are expected to take three weeks to arrive. The anti-missile rockets, supplied by Germany, will be operated by 370 Dutch Air Force troops.

Deployment of the biochemical units will wait until the Turkish military presents a detailed list of what exactly it needs to fill shortfalls in its defenses. NATO's military headquarters will then ask allies for specific units to move to Turkey.

Turkish officials at NATO headquarters expressed satisfaction at the speed with which the alliance was now moving. "We have waited long enough," said one diplomat. "Now things are moving quickly."

The United States requested in mid-January that NATO begin contingency planning to protect Turkey in case of war. But France, joined by Germany and Belgium, had blocked any action, arguing such a move was premature and would undermine U.N. efforts to settle the Iraq crisis peacefully.

On Sunday, NATO convened the little-used defense committee to break the stalemate. Paris left NATO's military command structure in 1966 and participates only in political consultations.

Germany and Belgium then dropped their veto in exchange for a statement underlining that the allies continued "to support efforts in the United Nations to find a peaceful solution to the crisis."

The three original holdouts later issued a joint statement stressing their determination to honor their obligations to NATO, but also their desire to disarm Iraq without force.

NATO officials have said that while they would have preferred to have the decision made by all 19 allies, it was important to end the delay that threatened to undermine the credibility and solidarity of the 53-year-old trans-Atlantic pact.

Turkey is considering a U.S. request to deploy tens of thousands of U.S. combat soldiers on its soil to open a northern front against Iraq in any war.

Robertson said Turkey faces a threat of possible pre-emptive attack by Saddam Hussein. "Our decision on Sunday and our decision today has to do with protection of Turkey and the protection of Turkey alone," he told APTN.