Roles on Iraq May Reshape NATO ; Spat over Turkey's Request for Military Assistance Is the Latest in a Series of Bitter Disputes among NATO Allies

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Acrimony among NATO allies over US military planning for a possible conflict with Iraq has become so pointed that it may change the very nature of the Atlantic alliance, the bedrock of Western security since World War II.

At the least, the political rift is likely to accelerate NATO's pace of structural change. Five years from now the remaining US heavy forces in Germany may be greatly reduced, with some units scattered to new bases in Eastern and Southern Europe, and others returned to North America.

Such redeployments would be the physical manifestation of a new US way of looking at its regional relationships - one in which Romania, say, or Hungary, seems more important.

"How our allies - and adversaries - define themselves in the next 24 months will shape how we view them for two decades to come," says Barry

McCaffrey, the retired four-star Army general who led the left- hook attack across the Euphrates River valley during the 1991 Gulf War, trapping Iraq's elite Republican Guard.

The spark for NATO's latest internal squabble was an effort by the US and some other alliance nations to begin planning for military assistance to Turkey in the event of war with Iraq.

France and Germany blocked that effort on Monday, on grounds that to accept it would be tantamount to accepting the inevitability of war. Turkey - NATO's only Muslim nation - then invoked a treaty clause which requires the alliance to consult if any member feels its security threatened.

At time of writing, the opening of an emergency session to discuss Turkey's request at NATO headquarters in Brussels was delayed, to allow more time for closed-door diplomacy.

The bitter nature of the dispute was surprising, given that it is partly symbolic. Both Germany and France say they have no desire to deny Turkey assistance it genuinely needs.

But such a fight may have become inevitable, say experts, given that NATO lost its original reason for existence with the end of the cold war. Without the discipline imposed by the need to confront a Soviet threat, US decisionmaking on security matters has become increasingly unilateral. Germany and France, meanwhile, have begun to use NATO as a forum to try and check US ambitions.

To confront the US in the UN Security Council, which is partly intended to serve as a big-power debating society, is one thing. To do so within a military alliance whose professed goal is cohesion may be another, especially given that American forces make up the bulk of NATO assets.

"The damage that will come out of this is damage to NATO solidarity," says General McCaffrey. …