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NATO leaders begin summit, are poised to OK aid for Iraq

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — ISTANBUL, Turkey -- NATO leaders last night convened their first summit since the Iraq war and prepared to approve an agreement to train and equip Iraq's fledgling security forces.

White House officials described the anticipated agreement as a significant step after more than a year of deep division within the alliance over the war in Iraq.

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But it also represented a serious reduction in expectations by the Bush administration, which had originally hoped that NATO countries would be willing to put troops in the country, as they have in Afghanistan.

"This is pretty big stuff, especially in light of the debates" of the past year, a senior administration official said yesterday.

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The administration official said details, including how many forces NATO would train and how much of that training might occur outside Iraq, were under discussion.

Lowered expectations

In recent weeks, Bush administration officials have lowered expectations for the summit, recognizing that NATO allies were unable to commit troops to Iraq because of commitments to Afghanistan and opposition in their own countries.

The leaders of NATO's 26 members held a formal dinner last night and were scheduled to hold working meetings today and tomorrow -- the day before the United States returns national sovereignty to Iraq.

President Bush's visit to Turkey was shadowed by concern over the fate of three Turkish contractors held hostage in Iraq and threatened with death unless other Turkish workers leave Iraq by tomorrow.

U.S. officials said the president discussed the hostage situation in meetings with the Turkish president and prime minister, but the president did not respond to reporters' questions about the situation.

Turkish officials vowed not to give in to terrorists' demands.

"Turkey has been fighting terrorist activity for more than 20 years," said Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul. "They ask many things, they demand many things. We never consider them with seriousness."

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Bush's visit was met with large protest rallies. About 25,000 people gathered in Istanbul, many holding signs that read "Bush Go Home."

Tayfun Mater, a left-wing activist who helped organize the rally, said the hostage-taking had given new motivation to the protesters. "The aim now, in part, is to help save the lives of those hostages," Mater said.

"I don't like what America is doing to the Iraqis, but innocent Muslim Turks should not be paying the price for American crimes," said Ferit Hamamcioglu, a waiter in Ankara, the capital.

The protests and the presence of heads of state led to severe security restrictions in the ancient port city, where two bombs last week and the hostage-taking increased tensions over the weekend. Riot fences sealed off much of the center city, and residents were forced to carry passes to reach their homes.

Bush spent the first half of the day with Turkish leaders in Ankara, where he placed a wreath at the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern, secular Turkish state.

Praise for Turkey

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Throughout his visit, the president has praised Turkey as a secular yet Muslim nation, the kind of democracy he hopes other nations, including Iraq, will emulate.

"I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and, at the same time, a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom," Bush said as he met with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

Bush administration officials described the summit as marking a new stage in the alliance's history. Until recently NATO considered its mission of defending Europe and North America to mean it would not act outside those continents.

But nearly three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. officials say the alliance now agrees that defending itself means addressing threats that arise outside its traditional geographic sphere of influence.

"The debate about what NATO is for is answered, and the question now is how NATO is going to do that," the administration official said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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