But it remains to be seen whether the 19-member military bloc, still tender from the bruising inflicted by the Iraqi conflict, can overcome divisions and rise to meet the challenge. 

US Secretary of State Colin Powell last week made the clearest call since the toppling of Saddam Hussein for NATO to "examine how it might do more to support peace and stability in Iraq." 

But although no one present at the talks between NATO foreign ministers in Brussels said an outright no, the prospects of a collective alliance deployment anytime soon look extremely slim.

"We've not yet come to the stage of discussing whether a wider role is appropriate for NATO in Iraq," alliance chief George Robertson said.

"That will probably come next year and I think it will be judged in terms of what we still have to do in Afghanistan," he added. In Afghanistan, NATO took over command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) only in August.

Ideas

Among ideas circulating in NATO's headquarters is the possibility of the alliance taking over command of the division of the multinational force in southern Iraq, currently led by Poland. 

"We've not yet come to the stage of discussing whether a wider role is appropriate for NATO in Iraq"

George Robertson,
NATO chief

Powell's appeal was preceded by remarks in a similar vein by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld earlier in the week, also in Brussels.

In fact, most individual NATO nations - 18 out of the 26 current and incoming members due to join next year - are already part of the US-led occupation forces in Iraq and would welcome more direct involvement by NATO itself. 

Poland, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands made their support for such plans clear at last week's NATO ministerial meetings, according to diplomats. 

Cautious

The Iraq question plunged NATO into one of the worst crises in its 54-year history in February, after four alliance members - France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg - opposed offering help to fellow member Turkey. 

Canadian soldiers in Kabul: NATO
role is likely to expand

Since then the organisation, which requires unanimity for
almost all decisions, has trodden carefully on the delicate Iraqi issue, giving logistical support to the Poles, but nothing else.

NATO was largely sidelined in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, despite having invoked a key joint defence clause for the first time. It provided AWACS surveillance planes for the US as America's military might headed for Afghanistan, but was not otherwise engaged. 

So the alliance was only too happy to take over the ISAF command in August, in its first-deployment outside of its traditional European theatre of operations.

Afghanistan

Powell signalled an even bigger Afghan role for NATO last week. 

"We must also consider the possibility of NATO... taking over all military operations in Afghanistan at some point in the future," he said, adding: "Our principal focus right now has to be Afghanistan." 

On Iraq, Powell was keen to underline that, in the Brussels
talks at least, no one had expressed opposition to the idea of
considering a wider role for NATO. 

But as one diplomat pointed out: "You can't say that those who did not speak gave their consent." 

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel warned, however, the
conditions needed for a wider NATO role in Iraq "don't seem to be in place," in particular because of the lack of clarity over the UN's role in the country. 

Between now and a NATO summit next June in Turkey, coinciding with the planned handover of power from the US-led coalition to an interim government in Iraq, much could happen to complicate the picture.