WARSAW, Poland - American Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld introduced a U.S. proposal yesterday to create a NATO military force of about 21,000 fighters who could drop into a hostile environment within a week and sustain themselves up to a month.
Rumsfeld presented the proposal in Warsaw at an informal meeting of the 53-year-old alliance, warning NATO leaders that they need to develop a military force that is fast and lean to respond to the terrorist threats of the post-Sept. 11 world.
"If NATO does not have a force that is quick and agile, which can deploy in days or weeks instead of months or years, then it will not have much to offer the world in the 21st century," Rumsfeld told his fellow NATO defense ministers, according to the text of his remarks during the closed-door meeting.
NATO Secretary General George Robertson said afterward that most of the defense ministers voiced support for the plan, which could take two years to carry out, and that no one objected to it.
While the meeting was intended to discuss increases in spending and capability - the United States spends far more on defense than its 18 allies do combined - tensions with Iraq crowded onto the agenda.
For about 45 minutes, Rumsfeld and deputy CIA director John E. McLaughlin briefed the ministers about Iraq's efforts to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, according to Robertson. He declined to give details but described the information as "sobering."
British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon circulated a dossier on Iraqi weapons plans that his country released yesterday. Robertson described it as "firm evidence from a range of secret intelligence sources [that] will, I hope, give pause for thought."
The defense ministers aggressively questioned the U.S. officials, Robertson said. "Yes, there were tough and there were penetrating questions asked."
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said after the meeting that a pre-emptive strike against Iraq could inflame the Arab world against the United States.
"I think this is extremely dangerous, because it could open all sorts of possibilities," she said.