Speaking on Monday, Kwasniewski said alliance nations are all in favour of engaging more NATO forces in Iraq, and a "good moment to make certain decisions on the issue will be NATO's summit in Turkey in late June".

Some diplomats have said NATO could gradually take command over the Polish-led multi-national force that oversees a "stabilisation zone" in south-central Iraq.

But new NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has said it should concentrate first on its mission on Afghanistan.

Kwasniewski strongly supported
the war on Iraq

Fresh Iraq troops 

Meanwhile, Poland began sending fresh troops to Iraq on Monday to relieve its 2500-strong force deployed last summer.

The United States is pressing NATO to beef up its presence in Iraq. The alliance now provides technical and intelligence support for the Polish-led force.

The US-led war to topple Saddam Hussein, strongly supported by Poland, has divided NATO, with France and Germany opposing the operation.

Poland joined NATO in 1999 along with two other former Soviet bloc countries, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

New secretary-general

Earlier on Monday Jaap de Hoop Scheffer took over the NATO helm from departing secretary-general George Robertson.

The former Dutch foreign minister takes over the world's biggest military alliance at a turning point in its history, when for the first time it has sent forces outside of Europe. 

He will have his diplomatic skills tested as he seeks to steer a steady course for NATO which was almost torn apart by the transatlantic tensions of the Iraq crisis.

"Relations between the European Union and the United States will be one of my prime targets," he said as he arrived at his Brussels office.

Transatlantic tensions

De Hoop Scheffer (2ndL) is the
former Dutch foreign minister

De Hoop Scheffer supported the United States politically throughout the Iraq war, without attracting the epithet of "America's lapdog" that was launched against Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.

But he also declined to sign the letter of support for the US drawn up by Spain, Italy and several countries in Eastern Europe, because he did not wish to create a division between Europeans.

That scored him points in Paris and Berlin, which were strongly opposed to the war.

His predecessor as NATO secretary general, George Robertson, oversaw a key phase of the alliance's transformation from a Cold War-era bloc to "a global security organisation" in the wake of September 11 attacks.