BRUSSELS -- Sensing a shift in European opinion, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that he sees hope of greater NATO willingness to take on an expanded role in Iraq at some point.
For now, he said, the NATO consensus appears to be that the alliance should first put in place a plan for an expansion of its role in Afghanistan, from the capital, Kabul, to one or more provinces.
NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson told reporters before Powell spoke that no country is promoting a proposal for an increased alliance role in Iraq. But, Robertson added, "Nobody is excluding it."
Powell raised the issue of Iraq in a morning address to NATO foreign ministers and told a news conference later that he was surprised during the course of the day when "not a single member spoke against it or talked about reasons not to do it."
The United States suggested an expanded NATO role in Iraq as far back as a year ago, months before the war, but encountered stiff resistance, particularly from France and Germany.
Powell has pushed the issue over the telephone and at international conferences since then, but with little positive feedback.
In his speech, Powell said the United States urged "the alliance to examine how it might do more to support peace and stability in Iraq, which every leader has acknowledged is critical to all of us."
Later, he said NATO could begin examining options for expanding its presence in Iraq; the alliance now provides logistical support for the military sector under Polish command. He suggested that NATO could take over command from Poland, which has about 2,400 troops in charge of one of the three military sectors in Iraq.
As for Afghanistan, Powell said NATO should eventually consider taking over all military operations there at some stage. Currently NATO's mission, with more than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, is separate from the US-led combat operation against remnants of the Taliban rule and Al Qaeda.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of Italy, whose government has sent 3,000 police to southern Iraq, endorsed a higher profile role for NATO in Iraq.
"I think that the time has come to consider a more direct role of the alliance in providing a framework of security for the midterm term stabilization of Iraq," Frattini said. Spain and Poland also support a more robust NATO role.
Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin of France and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany both attended yesterday's NATO session. Neither was reported to have commented publicly on Powell's proposal.
NATO has never been unanimously opposed to the US-led war in Iraq. Indeed, Powell pointed out that 16 of the 26 NATO members, including seven which will formally join NATO next year, have sent forces to Iraq in support of the US-led coalition.
The perception of a Europe hostile to American policy in Iraq is attributable largely to the opposition of France and Germany, two of NATO's largest and most influential members.
If NATO agrees to expand the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and then elects to broaden alliance participation in Iraq, that would signal firm alliance backing for the Bush administration's two highest priority foreign policy goals.