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US Commander Speaks on New Role For NATO on Its Southern Flank

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FROM a picturesque hillside office complex overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, NATO's southern command is trying to turn the world's most powerful killing machine into a group of even-handed peacekeepers and sophisticated diplomats.

From this Italian city, NATO not only supports troubled United Nations operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also is leading a controversial effort to develop a dialogue with Islamic nations in northern Africa.

Observers say whether NATO succeeds or fails in these two complex missions may determine whether the alliance establishes a new role or becomes a cold-war relic.

So far, says NATO's southern commander, United States Adm. Leighton Smith, both operations are a success, but he warns that lessons learned by his command must be considered by Western leaders.

''You don't ever want to design a system where there is a dual key again,'' says Admiral Smith, in a Monitor interview. ''That would be the first thing I would recommend against in a future military operation.''

Smith cites a ''dual key'' command system in Bosnia that requires both UN and NATO commanders to approve military action by NATO forces. A lack of clear political will in the West has led to a series of disputes over how much force should be used in Bosnia that has at times soured relations between the two bodies.

UN versus NATO

At various points in a nearly two-year effort by NATO to keep Bosnia's warring parties from using fighter planes, the UN has blocked NATO from destroying surface-to-air missile sites that threatened NATO planes and briefly halted all NATO flights over Bosnia. Critics say NATO'S credibility has been hurt as a result.

And NATO once refused to turn over its daily flight plans to the UN because of fears that Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, the UN commander in Bosnia until December, was going to turn the plans over to Bosnian Serbs.

Smith and senior NATO officials also spent the last two weeks pressuring the UN to back down from allegations that NATO was covering up secret arms deliveries to the Bosnian government.

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