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Bush Urges Leaders to Unite for Iraq's Sake

Addressing the U.N., the president stands fast on his refusal to speed the transfer of sovereignty.

September 24, 2003|Maura Reynolds and Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writers

UNITED NATIONS — President Bush urged world leaders gathered at the United Nations on Tuesday to set aside differences over the war in Iraq and join in rebuilding the country. But he didn't budge on the central issue blocking greater participation: how quickly to return sovereignty to the Iraqis.

In a coolly received speech at the opening of the General Assembly that rounded out a year of confrontation and acrimony between the United States and the United Nations, Bush acknowledged that some of the 191 nations represented in the grand domed chamber "disagreed with our actions" in invading Iraq. But he did not apologize for the U.S. course, as some had hoped, nor say that the U.S. could not bear the burden of the Iraqi occupation alone.

Instead, he called on them to "move forward" -- not because the U.S. needs their help, but because Iraq does. "The nation of Iraq needs and deserves our aid, and all nations of goodwill should step forward and provide that support," he said.

For the most part, heads of state and diplomats responded with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Their reaction suggested that U.N. members who felt misled about the justification for invading Iraq now feel misused by the U.S. request for help.

"No matter how invaluable its humanitarian work, the U.N. was conceived to do more than clear the rubble of conflicts it could not prevent," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said.

Some warned that the United States' decision to go to war without U.N. authorization has heightened dangers by destabilizing the world order. French President Jacques Chirac said the war had "shaken the multilateral system."

In an unusually direct rebuke, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the unilateralism adopted by the United States has brought the world body to a fork in the road that could threaten its existence.

Countries that "reserve the right to act unilaterally or in ad hoc coalitions" represent a "fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for the last 58 years," Annan said.

Chirac echoed the theme. "In an open world, no one can live in isolation. No one can act in the name of everyone. No one can accept the anarchy of a society without rules," he said.

Bush's speech was aimed at inspiring U.N. members to take on many of the financial costs of the occupation and reconstruction.

But on that score, the president appeared to make little headway. The French and other critics have said they would do so only if the United Nations is given the central role in the rebuilding, and if the timetable for restoring sovereignty is accelerated.

Bush suggested that the United Nations could contribute greatly to the rebuilding by helping Iraqis write a constitution, training civil servants and conducting elections. But he indicated that the United States intended to retain overall control of military and political operations, including the decision of when to return sovereignty to Iraqi institutions.

"This process must unfold according to the need of Iraqis -- neither hurried nor delayed by the wishes of other parties," Bush said.

A British diplomat said the United States was expected to introduce a U.N. resolution early next week seeking international involvement in postwar Iraq.

In a private meeting after their speeches, Bush and Chirac papered over their differences, and Chirac appeared to ease his demands that the transfer of sovereignty occur within a month. The shift of responsibilities could occur gradually over "three, six, nine months, no one can say," Chirac said at a news conference. "Obviously, the transfer cannot be abrupt. Today, the Iraqi administration is not in a position to shoulder the entire burden of its responsibilities."

After the meeting, a senior Bush administration official said "the premature transfer of sovereignty, which has been the French proposal, is just not in the cards." A major reason, the official said, is that the Iraqi Governing Council is only an interim body appointed by the U.S.-led coalition and that sovereignty must be transferred to an elected government.

"I can guarantee you that the American people, the president of the United States, most of the allies who are on the ground with us are not prepared to transfer sovereignty to 25 unelected people. It's just not going to happen," the official said.

U.S. officials also said that in their tete-a-tete Chirac suggested that France might be willing to help train some Iraqi security forces, as Germany has offered, but the two sides did not discuss details.

Bush also met with the heads of state of Indonesia, Morocco, Spain and Afghanistan -- all countries that have suffered from terrorism or taken part in U.S. efforts to defeat Al Qaeda.

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