NATO chief calls for unity despite Iraq dispute


BERLIN -- The NATO secretary-general, Lord Robertson, urged the allies yesterday not to let disputes over Iraq weaken their unity and strengthen their enemies.

"There is a huge premium on alliance unity, especially in these dangerous times," Robertson said at the close of a two-day conference of NATO defense ministers in Warsaw, Poland. "The enemies of the alliance are watching very carefully, indeed."

The U.S. secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, said he was pleased with the level of support he had found among allies for his idea of a NATO rapid-reaction force, and for the need to take the risks of Iraq seriously.

Rumsfeld deflected questions yesterday about any offers of military support, saying that President Bush has not decided what to do in Iraq.

"Therefore one ought not to be surprised that there isn't a coalition," Rumsfeld said.

"But you can be certain that if and when the president decides to do something that there'll be other nations assisting," he added, saying that some European colleagues, whom he refused to name, had expressed their support to him.

The German defense minister, Peter Struck, made it clear that Germany was not among them and would not participate in a war in Iraq.

Struck said that he had found nothing new in the U.S. information presented to the ministers about Iraq and that there was no evidence linking Baghdad and al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization.

"Our priority is to enable quick inspections on the ground in Iraq," he said. "I get the impression there is understanding and also some support for our position."

Rumsfeld denied that he had snubbed Struck -- whom he referred to at one point as "that person" -- by leaving a NATO meeting just before the German was due to speak.

"No, I did not intentionally snub anybody," Rumsfeld said yesterday. "That's not my way."

But when asked what more Berlin might do to mend fences with the angry Americans, he said, "It's not for me to give advice to other countries."

He then paused, adding, "We do have a saying in America: If you're in a hole, stop digging."

He paused again, then, almost giggling, said: "Um, I'm not sure I should have said that. Let's pretend I never said that."

Struck, in a news conference, refused to comment on Rumsfeld's remark, saying only that "German-U.S. relations are in a difficult period, but I think that we will return soon to a good working atmosphere and relations of friendship."

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