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Rumsfeld Objects to Funding for NATO

U.S. may halt payments for facility in Belgium because the nation allows war crimes trials of foreign leaders.

June 13, 2003|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

BRUSSELS — Just when NATO appeared poised to move beyond its divisions over the war in Iraq, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Thursday threatened to withhold further funding for a new alliance headquarters here because of a Belgian law allowing foreign leaders to be tried here for war crimes.

Rumsfeld said the decade-old law, under which lawsuits have been filed in Belgian courts against Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks among others, "calls into serious question whether NATO can continue to hold meetings in Belgium and whether senior U.S. officials, military and civilian, will be able to continue to visit international organizations in Belgium."

Rumsfeld said that until the law is repealed, the U.S. "will have to oppose" any further funding for the construction of a new headquarters for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The alliance has been in the early stages of planning for a new headquarters to replace its aging complex of buildings. The project is scheduled for completion in 2007.

"Belgium needs to recognize that there are consequences for its actions," Rumsfeld said. "It's perfectly possible to meet elsewhere."

His remarks, coming at the end of meetings that had seemed to go far in repairing the rift over Iraq, stunned the gathering. But Rumsfeld said he was not making a threat.

"I just stated a fact, that it would not be easy for U.S. or European officials to come to Belgium for meetings," Rumsfeld said.

"It shouldn't take a genius to understand that [the law] is a problem.... People are not going to want to meet here," he added.

Since the law was used in March by a Belgian attorney associated with a left-wing political party to file suit against former President George H.W. Bush, Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney and retired Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, senior U.S. officials have complained about it publicly.

A second suit was filed against Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the Iraq war, leading to complaints by Powell and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Rumsfeld raised his concern about the law at a lunch Thursday with his 18 counterparts in the alliance. In what was characterized by a NATO diplomat as a "cordial, honest exchange," Belgian Defense Minister Andre Flahaut defended his government's handling of the issue.

According to the NATO official, who asked to remain anonymous, Flahaut said that the law has been amended to allow the Belgian government to refer such lawsuits to other governments and that the Franks suit was referred to the U.S., thus taking it out of the Belgian court system. But the U.S. has remained dissatisfied because Belgium did not ask that the case be dismissed, the official said.

Rumsfeld also mentioned U.S. opposition to the law a day earlier, in a speech in Germany.

Asked by a reporter Thursday if his comments might throw NATO into crisis, Rumsfeld said they would not.

"No. You're wrong," Rumsfeld told the reporter, his voice rising as he pointed at him from the lectern. "This is not a major crisis. We will get through this."

The remarks by Rumsfeld came after days of major progress at NATO toward mending rifts over the war in Iraq. NATO agreed Thursday to bolster a small, Polish-led stabilization force in Iraq with troops from fellow member Spain. The decision to send the troops, although in tiny numbers compared with the 146,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, is indicative of a new commitment by the alliance to play a role in the reconstruction of Iraq, and to confront what it views as growing threats to its security far from its borders, U.S. and NATO officials said.

Rumsfeld praised the moves by NATO countries to provide the troops as "tremendously important." Poland is due to send 2,300 troops to Iraq by September, and Spain will contribute 1,100 soldiers, NATO officials disclosed Thursday.

In addition, Ukraine will contribute 1,700 troops while Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Lithuania, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Fiji also have committed small numbers of soldiers to the effort to maintain order and help establish new civil authority in a zone of central-southern Iraq wedged between the British-run area in the south and the U.S.-controlled zone to the north.

The ministers also agreed to adopt a plan to establish a rapid-reaction force that could be deployed to trouble spots around the world within seven to 30 days. If established, it would be the first permanent force in the history of the alliance explicitly authorized to take military action outside Europe.

"This is a new NATO, a NATO transformed," NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said of the 54-year-old alliance.

"This is real change and not rhetoric."

In September, Rumsfeld proposed the creation of the 20,000-member rapid-response force when he told defense ministers in Warsaw that to revive NATO as a working military organization, it needed to set its sights on threats to its interests far from its borders.

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