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NATO chief open to greater military role in Iraq

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell meet Friday at the State Department.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell meet Friday at the State Department.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The new NATO secretary-general said he believes the Atlantic alliance would be open to a request for a greater military commitment in Iraq after the country regains its sovereignty this summer.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who is visiting the United States for the first time since becoming NATO's chief this month, said Friday the alliance is following political developments in Iraq with close interest.

Iraq is scheduled to regain its independence July 1.

"I could very well imagine if a request would come, after transfer of sovereignty, from an Iraqi government to NATO ... that the alliance would be willing to respond favorably to that request," Scheffer said. "But let's wait and see how political developments go in Iraq. It's a bit early to say."

President Bush is expected to ask NATO to get more involved; Scheffer and Bush met Friday, and the former said they discussed "a possible greater NATO role" after Iraq achieves sovereignty.

The United States, Britain and Poland -- which control forces in different sectors of the country -- are members of NATO, and the alliance is providing the Polish-led multinational division in south-central Iraq support for communication, logistics and movements.

If NATO allies asked for more help between now and July 1, he said, "I think the answer of the alliance would be yes."

But Scheffer said NATO's first priority is getting it "right" in Afghanistan, where the alliance has troops. About 5,000 troops under NATO command act as peacekeepers in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

"I think NATO has the ambition and should have the ambition to take over the responsibility for much more, what is called provincial reconstruction teams," he said, describing them as "people going to the provinces and trying to provide security and stability there."

"It's my mission and NATO's mission to take over, of course, in close collaboration with the United States, responsibility for more of these teams," he said

The alliance also has troops in Kosovo and Bosnia.

Scheffer added that NATO will continue to play a large role in the war on terror.

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