BRUSSELS, Belgium - France, Germany and Belgium blocked NATO efforts Monday to begin planning for possible Iraqi attacks against Turkey, deepening divisions in the alliance over the U.S.-led push to oust Saddam Hussein.
Turkey immediately requested emergency consultations under NATO’s mutual defense treaty - or Article 4 - the first time a nation has done so in the alliance’s 53-year history.
“I am not seeking today to minimize the seriousness of the situation. It is serious,’’ NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said during a break in the meeting of alliance ambassadors, where he called the atmosphere “very heated.’’
The move was a blow to the United States, which has lobbied hard for more than three weeks in favor of starting the military preparations and won the support of 16 of the 19 NATO allies.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said NATO has a legal obligation to assist Turkey when it asks for help.
The alliance should make sure that Turkey “is not put at any risk,’’ Powell told reporters. “I hope that NATO will now realize that they have an obligation to assist a NATO member.’’
Powell cited Article 4 of the NATO’s mutual defense treaty, which declares NATO members will consult when “in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.’’
At the emergency meeting, Turkey could for the first time make a direct appeal for help. Rejecting a direct appeal would be a serious blow to the alliance’s unity, diplomats said.
“This is a most unfortunate decision,’’ said U.S. ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns. “Because of their actions, NATO is now facing a crisis of credibility.’’
Turkey, the only NATO member that shares a border with Iraq, is likely to be a staging ground for any U.S.-led assault to remove Saddam Hussein. France and Germany have led opposition in Europe to a war, which Washington threatens to launch if Iraq does not, in its view, disarm.
Early Monday, France, Germany and Belgium blocked the automatic start of NATO procedures for the military planning to protect Turkey, arguing it would force the crisis into a “logic of war’’ when diplomatic alternatives still stood a chance of success.
“It would signify that we have already entered into the logic of war, that ... any chance, any initiative to still resolve the conflict in a peaceful way was gone,’’ Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel said.
The plans include preparations to send Turkey AWACS early warning planes, Patriot anti-missile batteries and units specialized in counter germ warfare and anti-poison gas operations.
Still, Lord Robertson said he was “confident’’ the alliance would reach consensus. Britain, which has strongly backed the U.S. stance toward Iraq, agreed.
Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman said Britain was “disappointed’’ by the decision by France, Germany and Belgium but didn’t believe it was final.
“A veto is only a veto if it results in something never happening,’’ the spokesman said. “It’s likely this will be a matter of continuing conversations, maybe even today.’’
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis also sought to soothe tempers. “There was no veto on defending Turkey,’’ Yakis told reporters in Ankara. “There is disagreement over the timing’’ but not on the principle of defending Turkey, he said. “These problems can be overcome.’’
He did not say whether Turkey would make a direct request for a start to the contingency planning.
Officials say they expect France and the other holdouts to drop their objections to the military planning when faced with a direct request from the Turks under the treaty.
However, a senior NATO diplomat said the trio had pointedly declined to reveal their intentions during the morning meeting.
Diplomats at NATO headquarters were surprised that Germany backed the veto, after Defense Minister Peter Struck hinted over the weekend that Berlin might be willing to lift its objections.
Over the weekend, at an international defense conference in Munich, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the obstruction of the planning “inexcusable.’’
He intensified his criticism in an interview published Sunday in Italy’s La Republica newspaper. “Shameful, for me it’s truly shameful,’’ Rumsfeld was quoted as saying. “Turkey is an ally. An ally that is risking everything ... How can you refuse it help?’’
In France, officials stood by their position but said they would help the Turks if they judged it necessary.
“If Turkey was really under threat, France would be one of the first at its side,’’ French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told reporters in Munich. “Today, we don’t feel that threat is there.’’
NATO’s military commanders say the planning can be wrapped up within a few days once they get the go-ahead, but actual deployment of the NATO units will need further approval from the 19 allies.
All NATO decisions require unanimous support from the allies.