Nato officials said on Wednesday that they are prepared to send up to 300 military instructors backed by hundreds of guards and support staff to Iraq in an expansion of the alliance's military-training programme.

The approval sets up a meeting of officers from the 26 allies next week at Nato's military headquarters in southern Belgium to muster troops for the mission, which would run a military academy outside Baghdad for Iraqi officers.

Alliance commanders want to have the expanded mission up and running before the end of the year.

However, the alliance's top general added to concerns over the refusal of nations such as France and Germany to allow their troops to participate in the mission.

Difficulties

"That is of course causing difficulties," German General Harald Kujat said. "We don't have too many experts who can rotate."

France and Germany opposed the
war and sending troops to Iraq

Kujat, chairman of Nato's military committee, said he did not see difficulties in raising troops for the initial deployment of instructors and back-up, but added the refusal of some nations to allow their Nato officers to participate could cause longer-term problems.

"It's important that everybody contributes," he said. "There is a certain obligation."

Nato's top operational commander, US General James Jones, said 16 of the 26 allies have agreed to participate in the operation, which aims to train about 1000 officers a year.

Alliance problems

In an interview carried this week in London's Financial Times newspaper, General Jones also warned the decision of some allies not to send any soldiers could present problems as the alliance seeks to rotate its instructors.

Opponents of the Iraq war such as France, Germany and Belgium have insisted they will not send troops to Iraq, although they have offered to help with training Iraqi forces outside the country.

Nato officials are particularly worried that their refusal could undermine the unity of Nato's integrated military command.

The alliance has nearly 70 staff members in Iraq on its training mission which was launched in August. Nato has been drawing up and reviewing plans to expand the operation since September.