US snubbed by block on Nato officer plan

By Raphael Minder in Brussels and Rainer Koch in Noordwijk

Published: September 18, 2004

France and Belgium on Friday underlined their continued misgivings about involving Nato in Iraq by blocking a plan to open a training academy for senior military officers there.

Michèle Alliot-Marie, French defence minister, warned the planned presence of about 300 Nato training personnel was unlikely to quell the violence in Iraq. "Iraq needs stability and it is not by putting more uniforms into the country that Iraq will have that."

Nato heads of government endorsed the principle of providing training in Iraq at their summit in Istanbul in June. But the idea has remained controversial.

France in particular is concerned the academy could be seen as a first step towards wider Nato involvement in Iraq. Officials said Friday's veto was meant to send a signal to the US that it should not demand more help from Nato to control an increasingly violent and unpredictable situation.

The German government also sent a letter on Friday to Jaap de Ho op Scheffer, Nato secretary-general, asking for further details on financing and involvement in the academy.

The French and Belgian move is certain to anger Washington.

Despite this setback, Mr De Hoop Scheffer said he was hopeful that an agreement would be reached soon. Speaking at a meeting of European Union defence ministers in the Dutch resort of Noordwijk, he said another subject of concern was whether Nato would have to guarantee the security of the academy's staff.

Other officials insisted the concerns raised on Friday were technical rather than marking a U-turn on the idea of providing training.