BONN, JAN. 2 -- NATO announced today that Germany, Belgium and Italy will send 42 jet fighters and at least 470 support personnel from the alliance's rapid reaction force to Turkey within a week to bolster defenses along that country's border with Iraq.
The announcement of the first crisis deployment of the NATO force since its creation in 1960 came amid a flurry of diplomatic travel across Europe by Arab and European leaders and emissaries attempting to find a peaceful resolution to the Persian Gulf crisis.
Today's decision, a response to a request by Turkey, the only NATO member that borders Iraq, marks the first time since World War II that German forces have been sent abroad in response to a threat of war. Germany approved the request despite a last-minute attempt by the opposition Social Democrats to force a parliamentary vote on the issue.
NATO, which has so far not been involved in the military buildup because the gulf is beyond the alliance's territory, is committed to protect Turkey if Iraq attacks it. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has said he will not, but Turkey nonetheless has stationed 100,000 troops along the Iraqi border.
While the 12-member European Community prepared for an emergency session Friday on the gulf situation, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, the EC's president, said optimistically: "We are not heading for a war because I have a feeling that Saddam Hussein will pull out of Kuwait at the last minute."
European foreign ministers are expected to agree Friday to send Poos to Iraq to try to achieve the direct talks with Saddam that have failed to develop between Baghdad and Washington.
The chairman of the French parliament's foreign affairs committee flew to Baghdad today for what he described as a last-ditch attempt to avoid war. Michel Vauzelle, President Francois Mitterrand's former spokesman, met with Mitterrand just before he left for Iraq but said he had no specific mandate.
Vauzelle told reporters he had wanted his visit to be secret but that since word had leaked out, "I believe it is better for me personally to define the limits of my initiative. I am not the bearer of any message. I am not charged with any mission." Vauzelle said he felt compelled to talk directly to Iraqi officials so that no one could criticize France for having failed to seek a peaceful solution.
"This is a purely personal initiative," Muriel de Pierrebourg, a spokesman for Mitterrand, said tonight. Mitterrand remains close to his former aide and sent him to Arab nations to explain French policy after Iraq invaded Kuwait last August.
While Vauzelle flew to Baghdad, Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Ghazali and King Hussein of Jordan headed to Europe to discuss their peace efforts. Hussein will meet with British Prime Minister John Major Thursday and then go on to Paris, Rome, Bonn and Luxembourg.
German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who called the European meeting on the gulf, will meet Ghazali Thursday. A spokesman for Genscher said Algeria's efforts to find an Arab solution to the crisis "have failed, as far as we know."
"War in the gulf is not inevitable," Genscher said. He said the EC, having waited two weeks for the United States to try to set up talks with Iraq, should now make its own effort. When European leaders met in mid-December to discuss an initiative in the gulf, some countries were eager to meet with Iraqi leaders, but at the request of the Bush administration the group agreed to wait until the United States made its attempt to talk to the Iraqis.
Now, a German Foreign Ministry official said, Washington has expressed no objection to an independent European initiative. "We must give diplomacy a chance," the Bonn official said. "Any solution must be on the basis of the United Nations resolution -- a complete withdrawal from Kuwait."
The decision to send forces from NATO's so-called "fire brigade" to Turkey was seen by military officials as a straightforward matter of fulfilling alliance obligations, but it caused a political row in Germany.
For decades, NATO doctrine has required alliance members to provide assistance when requested by other member nations. But in Germany particularly, the move raised fears that sending even a token force of fighter planes could be perceived as making war more likely. German and Belgian officials stressed that the forces are to be purely defensive.
Germany, which is to provide 18 Alpha Jet ground-attack aircraft and a supporting force of 270, also reserved the right to approve use of the force in the event of war. A government statement emphasized that the German constitution allows its forces to fight only for defensive purposes. "We want to underline NATO's commitment to Turkey," a German Foreign Ministry source said, "but we also want to make sure that the deployment does not aggravate the situation."
Belgian Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens said the 18 Mirage fighter-bombers and 200 men his country will send to Turkey will serve a "dissuasive and defensive role." Italy is to dispatch six F-104 Starfighters to the Turkish air base at Erhac, about 300 miles from the Iraqi border.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater welcomed the NATO decision, saying it "demonstrates the alliance's support for the coalition effort and Turkey's part in it against Saddam Hussein. The deployment confirms the importance and effectiveness of the alliance in the post-Cold War era."
The NATO force, known officially as the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force, consists of a 5,000-troop multinational brigade and air units charged with protecting the edges of NATO territory in Norway and Turkey. The United States has 24 F-16 fighters, 14 F-111 tactical strike aircraft and an undisclosed number of F-15 fighters at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey.
Germany's Social Democratic opposition this week called for a parliamentary vote on the Turkish request, arguing that such a commitment of forces would be a "breach of the constitution" unless approved by a two-thirds vote. Social Democratic defense expert Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul accused European governments of "following the attitude of the U.S. government like lemmings and refusing direct talks."
But Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government said the constitution allows German forces to defend any NATO country and requires a parliamentary vote only if Germany itself is attacked.