U.S. might ask NATO to take over control of Iraq occupation

WASHINGTON -- With American costs and casualties mounting in Iraq, the Bush administration is showing new interest in putting NATO in charge of the military occupation as a way of scaling back the U.S. troop commitment, U.S. and NATO officials say.

Such a change would discomfit some administration hard-liners, as it would force the United States to share decision-making on Iraq with European leaders who opposed the U.S.-led invasion, analysts said. It might also require seeking a mandate from the United Nations Security Council, which the United States failed to get before launching the war to topple Saddam Hussein.

But as the single most powerful nation in NATO, the United States would retain military command while spreading the burden and costs among a number of nations, thereby easing demands on overstretched American forces, diplomats said.

"There is interest" in turning the mission over to NATO, although not right away, a senior Bush administration official said yesterday. "I think the American public would be pleased to see NATO helping us in Iraq. ... Americans believe in NATO and would consider it a plus to have NATO secure Iraq."

The alliance suffered its worst rupture in decades over the winter when two of its largest members, France and Germany, strenuously opposed the invasion of Iraq and at one point joined with Belgium in blocking NATO from bolstering the defense of Turkey in the event of an Iraqi attack on its neighbor.

Deepening the strains, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld referred to France and Germany disparagingly as "old Europe."

Since the war ended, however, diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic have been eager to repair the damage. Officials in Washington and Brussels, where NATO has its headquarters, say that a handover to NATO command might be formally discussed as early as this fall.

Discussion of NATO comes as members of Congress and defense analysts argue that the nearly daily casualties suffered by U.S. forces and the continuing sabotage of the country's infrastructure require adding more combat forces to the 146,000 Americans stationed in Iraq along with 12,000 troops from other nations, mostly from Britain.

The Pentagon reported yesterday that 143 Americans had been killed by hostile fire in Iraq since the war began in March, close to the 147 killed in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Guerrilla-style attacks have claimed 29 American lives since President Bush declared major combat operations over May 1.

The mounting death toll has eroded the American public's confidence in the military operation. In mid-April, 61 percent said the military effort in Iraq was going very well, but the figure now is 23 percent, according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

"I think they need more" troops, retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, who commanded U.S. forces in the region after the 1991 gulf war, said in an interview, although he did not say how many. "It seems to me that in order to guard the critical areas and the power stations, it's going to require more people until you get the Iraqis trained up to do it."

Democrats' position

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who is running for president, called upon the administration this week to "commit more U.S. troops and resources to Iraq." Lieberman, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an article that appeared in the Washington Post on Monday that the president should immediately "ask NATO to assume command of the forces in Iraq."

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, has also urged the enlisting of NATO. During a news conference late last month, he said the NATO secretary general, Lord Robertson, had assured him that "NATO's willing to step in," but that "nobody's asking them." Republican Sens. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the foreign relations panel, and John W. Warner of Virginia, who heads the Armed Services Committee, have spoken of bringing more allies into the Iraq operation, although they have stopped short of calling for a NATO takeover.

NATO has crossed a major political threshold by agreeing last month to provide military support to Poland, which is assembling an 8,000-member multinational force that is to be sent to Iraq in September, diplomats said. "As a general proposition, the United States would like NATO to do more in Iraq in the future," said a senior NATO official in Brussels. He said this had been "communicated at very high levels."

After NATO's decision to back the Polish-led deployment, "a number of people at headquarters and a number of countries saw this as the first stage" in turning over the whole mission to the alliance, the official said.

Iraq could follow the pattern set in Afghanistan, where NATO is to assume command of peacekeeping forces next month, the official added.

But appealing publicly for NATO help at a time of rising American casualties could prove embarrassing to the Bush administration.

"The problem now is, things aren't going as well as the U.S. had hoped. It's not really an opportune time for turning it over. It looks like you can't do it and are turning to someone else," said James Goldgeier, a European specialist at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Some analysts doubt NATO is up to the military challenge.

"NATO is not staffed, equipped or organized for the mission," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Moreover, France and Germany would likely set stiff conditions for agreeing to have NATO assume the lead in Iraq.

"You would need a whole package" giving allies a major role in decisions on Iraq's reconstruction and how its future government is organized, said Robert Hunter, U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Clinton. "It can't be just that the U.S. is still in charge of everything."

Said Stanton Burnett, a former U.S. diplomat at NATO: "The allies would have to be convinced that this administration is not trying to find a quick fix, and that this would set a new pattern and a new understanding of what NATO consultation means."

Such a sharing of authority could be "quite painful" for administration policymakers to swallow, Burnett said, particularly those who favor an assertive, unilateralist American role in world affairs.

But given the pressure on American forces, it might also be necessary.

The Pentagon is having a hard time rotating the 146,000 troops it has in Iraq, let alone increasing the size of the force. More than half the active duty Army is stationed in Iraq and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region, and officials are trying to send some of those combat-weary soldiers home.

The Army's 3rd Infantry Division spearheaded the three-week war, and many of its soldiers have been in the region for more than nine months, with some having their duty extended because of the deteriorating security situation. A 4,500-soldier brigade of the Georgia-based division is due to return home in the next two weeks, with the remaining 11,500 soldiers expected to rotate in late August, officials said.

Force levels

The question is, who will take over the unit's mission. With some active-duty Army divisions or portions of divisions deployed to Korea, Kosovo and Afghanistan, the Army staff at the Pentagon is looking at how to rotate forces out Iraq and maintain force levels around the world. A senior defense official recently told reporters he has not seen the Army this stretched since the Vietnam era.

One option is to extend the deployment periods of active Army units from six months to nine months. Another is to mobilize National Guard forces to help relieve the pressure, said one officer familiar with the effort.

The Pentagon and the State Department have reached out to some 70 countries to contribute forces outside the NATO umbrella to the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. But they have enlisted only the 8,000-member force that will be led by Poland.

Turning the operation over to NATO might increase European willingness to share the burden, but it would not necessarily be a panacea, as Europe's forces are also being stretched. German, Dutch and French forces have all assumed peacekeeping roles in Afghanistan, and France has troops in two African trouble spots, the Ivory Coast and Congo.