BRUSSELS — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrived in Belgium late Wednesday preparing to consult with NATO partners on whether the Western alliance should take a direct role in Iraq.
Such a step would be a major sign of political acceptance of the Iraq reconstruction mission, and would provide it with some of the best trained and equipped troops in the world. It also would help relieve an overworked U.S. force and would ease the political pressure from Congress, which has been pushing the Bush administration to enlist direct NATO help since spring.
On a quick swing through North Africa, which ended earlier in the day, Powell said the 26-member group was weighing, among other ideas, whether its troops might take the lead in the sector of south-central Iraq now overseen by a Polish-led international force. The Polish troops took charge of an international division in September and agreed to stay for a year.
Powell cautioned, in comments to reporters on his plane late Tuesday, that proposals to use NATO troops were "just ideas being explored." He noted that about 18 North Atlantic Treaty Organization member countries have some involvement in the reconstruction, saying "it's not as if there's a huge reservoir of NATO troops out there waiting for instructions to come."
NATO's acceptance of such a role would be a major step for the U.S.-led coalition. While a number of countries have small forces in Iraq and a few have contingents of more than 1,000 soldiers, the Bush administration has struggled for nine months to get all the troops it needs for the job.
Some NATO members, including France and Germany, have strongly opposed U.S. policy in Iraq. But NATO members may be more eager to support such a mission if they see that the U.S.-led coalition has handed over power to a legitimate Iraqi government by spring.
They also may be more willing if violence against forces in the country has subsided by that time. In recent months, NATO members Italy, Spain and Poland have lost troops in the mission, with the insurgents appearing just as willing to go after allied soldiers as American troops.
Powell told reporters that he had "been talking about this possibility for a long time," and even raised it at NATO in the spring, as did Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz. Powell noted that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also raised the subject with NATO defense ministers during a NATO session Monday and Tuesday.
"We will be exploring how NATO perceives the situation and what possibilities exist," he said.
He said that "one of the ideas that has been surfaced" was that NATO should take over from the Polish-led division, in the way that NATO has taken charge of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan -- called the International Security Assistance Force.
"I'm anxious to see the international community more heavily involved, in any way they choose to get involved," he said, adding that "it's not mine to dictate to them ... how to do it." The Pentagon has been hoping to get help from South Korean troops, and from noncombatant Japanese military personnel. India and Pakistan earlier this year sounded as if they might contribute, but so far have not deployed soldiers.
Turkey's administration and parliament committed the country to sending forces, but the interim Iraqi Governing Council rejected bringing troops from a neighboring country that had occupied Iraq for hundreds of years, and which continues to have tense relations with Iraqi Kurds.
Powell will also talk to NATO about expanding its presence in Afghanistan. U.S. officials, including Rumsfeld, have been pressing alliance members for more contributions to the effort, which so far is limited to the capital, Kabul, and the northern city of Kunduz.
Powell will also take up the desire of some European governments to develop a separate military planning capacity, so they would be more prepared for operations in which the United States does not take part.
U.S. officials said that Powell may also discuss with NATO members America's plans to reshape its military presence around the world.
Pentagon officials have been drafting plans to scale back or abandon some of the huge bases set up in Europe and Asia during the Cold War. Instead, the U.S. wants to build a network of small staging areas that could be expanded, as needed, to deploy troops in battle zones far from the continental United States.
While U.S. officials insist they have no completed plan, they have indicated that they want to scale back some of the 116,000 troops based permanently in Europe, and move some of them to lower-cost locations in Eastern Europe.
President Bush said last week that administration officials were about to step up discussions with allies about the plan. Rumsfeld also discussed it with NATO officials during his meeting with them earlier this week.
As Powell wound up a short visit to Morocco on Wednesday, he denied reports that plans for six-party talks with North Korea had hit a snag and would be delayed from late December.
In comments to reporters in Marrakech, Powell insisted: "There is no deadlock.... Everybody believes that six-party talks are going to take place, and they're committed to that proposition."
After an overnight stop in Morocco on Tuesday, where he talked at the Royal Palace with King Mohammed VI, Powell visited Algeria for about three hours to meet with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.