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Enlargement, Afghanistan dominate NATO summit agenda
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NATO's enlargement and its operations in Afghanistan will dominate the alliance's summit taking place from Wednesday to Friday in Bucharest, Romania.

Heads of state and government of the 26 allies will decide on whether to invite Albania, Croatia and Macedonia to join the alliance.

The stage is also set for debate between the big allies over whether to give Ukraine and Georgia's NATO membership action plan (MAP), a step closer to membership.

On the three Western Balkan states' membership, NATO leaders are caught between a Macedonia-Greece dispute over the former Yugoslav republic's constitutional name.

Greece, a NATO ally, has threatened to veto an invitation to Macedonia to join the alliance, while Macedonia has refused to back down.

Greece fears that the former Yugoslav republic's constitutional name Republic of Macedonia implies territorial ambition for the neighboring northern Greek province of Macedonia.

On the eve of the NATO summit, there were no signs of a solution to this long-term dispute.

US President George W. Bush visited Ukraine on his way to Bucharest and pledged to push for the MAP for Ukraine and Georgia.

"I'm going to work as hard as I can to see to it that Ukraine and Georgia are accepted into the MAP," Bush said in Kiev.

But France and Germany, the biggest European allies, are reluctant to grant the two former Soviet republics the status, fearing that the move will enrage Russia.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said, "We are opposed to Georgia and Ukraine's entry because we think that it is not the correct response to the balance of power in Europe, and between Europe and Russia."

Both Ukraine and Georgia are having internal problems that would enable European allies to argue against the MAP for them.

There is strong opposition to NATO membership in Ukraine, especially in the Russian-speaking areas, while the government of Georgia does not control its breakaway regions.

Both membership for the three Western Balkan countries and MAP for the two former Soviet republics are in the balance as NATO decisions are based on unanimity.

The three-day summit will also discuss NATO's operations in Afghanistan, the biggest challenge facing NATO at this time.

For the past few months, NATO allies have been wrangling over burden sharing in Afghanistan.

The 26 NATO allies plus 13 non-NATO countries currently have 47,000 troops in Afghanistan, but only a small portion of them are engaged in fighting the Taliban.

Commanders of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have kept on asking for more combat troops and equipment, such as helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. But major European allies have refused to commit more troops or to allow their troops already in Afghanistan to fight in the south of the country.

Canada has threatened to withdraw its troops by 2009 unless a European ally comes to its help.

The internal strife was alleviated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy's announcement last Wednesday that his country will send more troops to Afghanistan.

But he has yet to give details of the deployment at the summit both the numbers of troops and the area of deployment.

NATO leaders are expected to adopt a "vision statement" that aims to set up a strategy for the years to come. The leaders want the Afghan government and other international players to do more in that country.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso are invited to a high-level meeting on Afghanistan at the summit.

The NATO leaders are also expected to discuss peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, missile defense, cyber defense and the protection of energy supply lines.

(Xinhua News Agency April 2, 2008)

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