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Powell Sees Little Shift on Iraq

The U.S. and France remain at odds over the role of the U.N. and the transfer of sovereignty.

September 14, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

GENEVA — After a meeting here of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Saturday that there had been "some narrowing" of a deep gap over the political transition in Iraq but that "differences and difficulties" remained.

Powell, after five hours of talks with the foreign ministers of France, Russia, Britain and China, warned that haste in turning over power in Iraq could endanger a fragile process.

"You have to have a government that is not only there with the doors open but it has to be functioning ... in a way that the people will have confidence in it. It has to be functioning in a way that the people will respect it," said Powell, who later headed to Iraq. "The worst thing we can do is to set them up for failure."

The United States and France remain sharply at odds over the role of the United Nations and the timetable for handing back power to the Iraqis, according to French officials. The United States is seeking a new U.N. resolution creating a multinational force in Iraq led by the U.S., but France, in particular, has called for a swift return of sovereignty to Iraqis, with the U.N. overseeing the transition.

"Our proposals remain on the table. More work needs to be done," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous said in an interview after the talks. Paris proposed last week that political power be turned over to a provisional Iraqi government next month, a new constitution be written by year's end and elections held in the spring -- a timetable rejected by the United States as unrealistic.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who took the unusual step of summoning representatives of the world's five major powers to Geneva in the wake of President Bush's address last Sunday saying he would seek more international help in Iraq, told a joint news conference that a "thorough review" of the situation in Iraq had been conducted in a "constructive" atmosphere and had allowed them to identify "points of convergence."

In a subtle rebuke to the squabbling powers, however, Annan said that such a level of consensus was not enough to help Iraq and that a revised approach must be "well defined" to solve Iraq's problems.

"Consensus is essential and achievable," Annan said. "But consensus is not enough. We want a strong and valid resolution which will support our efforts on the ground ... to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people."

He said the talks would continue in New York in advance of the opening of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 22.

The Bush administration had not expected a major breakthrough in the Geneva session, with one senior official saying last week that "Powell will be in a listening mode." Administration officials also acknowledged last week that few nations would soon contribute troops or money for rebuilding Iraq even if a U.N. resolution were approved.

The differences over a proposed resolution have been so deep among the five permanent members of the Security Council, each with veto power, that the main goal here has been a "breakthrough in attitude" rather than agreement on specific terms for a new resolution, according to a well-placed diplomat in Geneva.

"The key is to get some clarity," particularly on who would oversee the political transition, said the diplomat, who requested anonymity.

That much may have been achieved, at least in part.

In his own briefing to American reporters, Powell described the talks as "good, open, candid [and] frank," adding that the foreign ministers had gone back over some points "several times" to ensure a clear understanding of goals and positions. Powell credited France with putting forward its own proposals "not in an obstructionist manner."

"Our common goal is to transfer authority back to the Iraqi people as quickly as possible, the question is on what glide path," he said.

At the joint news conference, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said his nation, like all other participants, sought to "find solutions, not create new problems."

After the talks, a senior State Department official said the U.S. is now fairly confident that none of the other four veto-wielding members of the Security Council will nix the effort, the kind of threat that contributed to the Bush administration's decision last spring to withdraw a resolution that would have endorsed military action.

"We don't smell a veto," the senior official said, although he added that Washington would introduce a new draft of the proposal first circulated last month after further consultations were complete.

Faced with ongoing security problems and political uncertainty in Iraq, the Bush administration opted to go back to the United Nations to seek its imprimatur to encourage other nations to provide troops to enhance security, as well as funding for reconstruction. The effort has slowed over the issue of who would control the process once the U.N. became more involved.

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