BRUSSELS NATO wants to name a new secretary-general at a summit starting on Friday, but concerns over its image in the Muslim world and elsewhere are hampering the quest for the right candidate.
Front-runner is Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, but Turkey is unhappy with his handling of a 2006 row over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad and other allies privately wonder how his appointment would go down in the Muslim world.
Another contender is Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. But Western European allies insist an official from a former Warsaw Pact country is not best placed to heal tensions between NATO and former Cold War foe Russia.
"There is no decision for now. I believe there is a 50-50 chance a new Sec-Gen will be elected," said a NATO envoy before the meeting hosted by France and Germany in the Rhineland.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer can stay on until July 31 in his current mandate and several nations are stressing the decision on naming a successor can be delayed.
But the dilemma highlights the political sensitivity of any choice for the job, whose main task is to cajole member nations into consensus on tricky issues and keep them united.
The hesitations over Rasmussen are particularly acute given NATO's effort to convince ordinary Muslims in Afghanistan to back its war against Taliban insurgents.
"NATO as a whole should think about their image in the Muslim world," a senior Turkish diplomat, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
That worry has spread to others in the alliance, despite the fact that diplomats say Rasmussen has the United States and large European members supporting him.
MUSLIM PROTESTS FEAR
"There are concerns in NATO that as secretary-general Rasmussen would face fierce protests when he visited Muslim countries," said one alliance diplomat who also declined to be identified because of the sensitivities of discussions.
Rasmussen refused to apologise for the Prophet Mohammad caricatures, citing principles of freedom of expression held dear in Europe.
To Turkey's dismay, Denmark has also allowed a pro-Kurdish militant television station to broadcast from its soil.
Ankara has not so far threatened to block his appointment and has not pressed demands in other areas in return for its acceptance of Rasmussen.
But diplomats point to Turkey's frustration that a long territorial dispute with European Union-member Cyprus means it is excluded from the defence structures of the 27-nation bloc, most of whose members are also NATO states.
Turkey could simply be signalling its desire to be taken seriously within NATO and the wider world as it seeks a more active role helping resolve regional conflicts, others suggest.
While Sikorski has the support of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, his chances are seen as slim.
While he went as far this week as suggesting that Russia could one day be a NATO member, his country's awkward ties with Moscow and its willingness to host a U.S. missile shield system are seen as deal-breakers.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere is seen as a compromise choice but is handicapped as Norway is not a member of the EU.
(Additional reporting by Zerin Elci in Ankara, Marcin Grajewski in Brussels; Editing by Janet Lawrence)