NATO foreign ministers debate wider political role for alliance

NATO foreign ministers grapple Wednesday with proposals to boost the alliance's political role and hold closer trans-Atlantic discussions to avoid the kind of division that developed over the Iraq war.

At two days of meetings in Lithuania, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to back plans for strategic discussions among the 26 allies on issues well beyond NATO's traditional remit, like the Middle East peace process.

"One of the priorities at Vilnius will be a discussion of how to make NATO a more robust forum for political discussion," said John M. Koening, the acting U.S. ambassador to NATO.

"We believe NATO should be the pre-eminent forum for defense and security discussions between Europe and North America," he told reporters at alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

Despite support for NATO to take on a more political role, diplomats signaled little backing for a German idea to set up a high-level panel of experts from Europe and America to overhaul the alliance and draw up a new framework for trans-Atlantic relations.

In an immediate sign of NATO's broadening political role, Rice and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos were to lead a discussion during the two-day meeting of the latest developments in the Middle East and NATO's outreach program to the region.

However, diplomats at NATO headquarters played down suggestions that the alliance was preparing to take a military role in helping end the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

They stressed the alliance line remained that any involvement on the ground would only be considered if the two sides signed a peace deal and both requested NATO's help with U.N. backing.

After starting talks with an informal dinner Wednesday, the NATO ministers will meet separately with their counterparts from Russia and Ukraine - talks packed with symbolism at the alliance's first high-level meeting in one of its new members, a country that was once occupied by the Soviet Union.

The meetings will be sensitive as Ukraine's new, pro-Western government pushes for closer ties with NATO in the face of Moscow's concerns about waning political influence with its former Soviet neighbors.

NATO ministers are expected to offer Ukraine a package of enhanced political and military cooperation, but stop short of setting out a path for it to join the alliance. "There will certainly be results along the lines of intensified dialogue, but there will be no concrete decisions on membership," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said last week in Brussels.

Despite strains over Ukraine and Russia's troop presence in Moldova and Georgia, NATO is scheduled to sign an agreement Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to facilitate the holding of joint military maneuvers and ease the transport of troops through each other's territory.

PAUL AMES, Associated Press Writer

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