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French Approach to Iraq 'Isn't Workable,' Rice Says

September 23, 2003|Edwin Chen and Robin Wright | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The White House on Monday bluntly rejected a French proposal to immediately transfer sovereignty in Iraq to the Iraqi people, with national security advisor Condoleezza Rice saying the approach "just isn't workable."

Rice's swift rebuff of French President Jacques Chirac's idea injected a new element of uncertainty into delicate negotiations at the United Nations to broaden international participation in the governance and reconstruction of postwar Iraq. President Bush is scheduled to meet with Chirac today as world leaders gather in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.

In his scheduled address to the world body this morning, Bush plans to issue a personal plea to more countries -- including key opponents of the war Germany and France -- to join the rebuilding effort.

With U.S. lawmakers and the public increasingly concerned over the mounting costs -- in lives and dollars -- of the American presence in Iraq, the Bush administration is under pressure to bring other nations on board. A number of countries have said they would not be willing to commit troops without a new U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a multinational force in Iraq.

Rice indicated Monday that Bush was unlikely to offer any significant concessions to help persuade nations to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. The speech "does, however, call to action the entire international community to recognize the tremendous opportunity we now have with a liberated Iraq," she said.

She predicted that "the president will find that [he'll get] many more partners than the many partners that we have."

In an interview with Fox News broadcast Monday night, Bush said he was prepared to allow the U.N. to oversee elections in Iraq and help Iraqis write a constitution. Asked if he was prepared to grant the world body a larger role, he said, "I'm not so sure we have to, for starters."

Chirac advanced his proposal on Iraqi sovereignty in a weekend interview with the New York Times. He outlined a two-step plan, beginning with a symbolic transfer of power from the United States to the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, to be followed by a phased-in transfer of real power over six to nine months.

If such an approach was adopted, Chirac said, France would be willing to train Iraqi police officers and soldiers, although not in Iraq. France will not send troops to aid the coalition, he said, but added that financial aid would be possible. France -- along with the U.S., Britain, China and Russia -- holds veto power on the Security Council.

In a briefing Monday, Rice called Chirac's plan premature.

"The French plan, which would somehow try to transfer sovereignty to an unelected group of people, just isn't workable," she said. "We have a job to finish in Iraq."

In New York, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was equally dismissive of proposals for a quick transfer of power. Asked whether he thought it was a good idea, he offered a one-word response: "No."

Speaking to reporters later, Powell sounded a more conciliatory note, saying the U.S. and its allies "all have the same goal, and that is to get Iraq into the hands of the Iraqi people as soon as practical and possible." But Chirac's proposal is "unrealistic," because, Powell said, there is no one to turn over sovereignty to in the near future.

The Iraqis "have to write a constitution and then have elections before we have a government to turn it over to. And that takes time," Powell said.

Administration officials hope to see a vote on a new U.N. resolution as early as next week, but they acknowledged that was an ambitious target date given the U.S.-French gulf.

Even with a new resolution, officials said, the U.S. is unlikely to see a major immediate infusion of either troops or funds. Rather, its primary goal for now is simply to change the atmospherics by winning at least symbolic international support for the rebuilding effort.

Chen reported from Washington and Wright from the United Nations.

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