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Bush takes Iraq position to NATO leaders

Bush and first lady Laura Bush depart the White House on Tuesday.
Bush and first lady Laura Bush depart the White House on Tuesday.

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CNN's Chris Burns reports the U.S. will work to firm up alliances against Iraq at the NATO summit in Prague (November 19)
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U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to ask NATO allies for their help in a U.S.-led campaign against Iraq. CNN's John King reports (November 19)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The focus of the NATO summit this week in the Czech Republic is to invite seven Eastern European nations to join the alliance, but Iraq is a major subplot -- and a diplomatic challenge for U.S. President George W. Bush.

Bush on Tuesday left Washington for Prague, where the leaders of NATO and its partner countries will meet Thursday and Friday to deliberate on the alliance's future.

The 19-member alliance was slated to issue invitations to Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Bush is a firm proponent of expanding the alliance, in part because many of the new members have been strong allies in the war on terrorism and voiced a willingness to offer bases and overflight rights if there is a U.S.-led military confrontation with Iraq.

"Iraq is typical, or the most important example, of the kind of threat that NATO will face in the future," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said ahead of the summit.

"The Iraq issue has become sort of the next litmus test for whether the United States has made a fundamental shift away from working with others toward doing everything alone," said former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot.

But NATO backing is not guaranteed.

Quick to offer help after the terrorist attacks on the United States, the alliance had only a small role in the war in Afghanistan.

Russia is now a NATO partner, and some see war with Iraq as a good test of whether an alliance formed to win the Cold War can adapt to changing times.

Germany is a key player in NATO, but Iraq is a sore spot in U.S.-German relations because Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder says Germany would not take part in any military confrontation.

The president, keenly aware of European skepticism of his approach to Iraq, still believes he's in a position of strength, fresh from his party's big win in the U.S. midterm elections and with the United Nations firmly behind him.

Agreeing with him is Rice, who said "I would note that this is a U.N. Security Council resolution that has the backing of everybody in the world, including Syria."

Pentagon war planning envisions more modest help from NATO allies.

Britain would be most involved, offering troops, fighter-bombers and air bases, and air bases in Turkey are critical because it is next to Iraq.

Romania and Bulgaria are among the new NATO members offering bases and use of their airspace and Czech forces have expertise in defending against biological and chemical attacks.

CNN White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report.

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