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Senate Prepares to Confirm U.S. Ambassador to Iraq

April 28, 2004|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senators moved swiftly Tuesday toward confirmation of the first U.S. ambassador to a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, grilling nominee John D. Negroponte over administration plans to grant coveted autonomy to Iraqis yet sustain a huge military occupation.

A confirmation hearing by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was dominated by questions about how much authority the United States truly will hand over to Iraqis when it transfers sovereignty June 30, and about the legal status of U.S. military forces under a new Iraqi government.

Democratic lawmakers stressed that Negroponte must not be viewed by Iraqis as a "proconsul" -- a colonial governor -- because the more authority America asserted, the less legitimate the new Iraqi government would appear. Negroponte, who was nicknamed "proconsul" while ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, stressed that "the embassy will be in a supportive, as opposed to a commanding, role."

The three-hour confirmation hearing was held Tuesday shortly before the U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, briefed the Security Council about his plans for forming a caretaker Iraqi government, and as several key members of the Iraqi Governing Council demanded more sovereignty in both civilian and security affairs.

Negroponte, currently President Bush's envoy to the United Nations, said Iraqis would have "a lot more sovereignty than they have right now," including control over Iraq's 25 ministries and over its foreign policy.

But stressing a key diplomatic distinction, Negroponte said the caretaker Iraqi government would not yet be in a position to "exercise" its sovereignty in taking charge of its own security. Senators wondered aloud whether Iraqi citizens would understand the distinction.

Negroponte added that he did not want to "in any way belittle the responsibilities that are going to be taken over by the newly appointed sovereign government of Iraq."

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) asked whether this "limited" sovereignty meant that the Iraqi government would not have veto authority over U.S. military actions after July 1, if, for example, the U.S. wanted to enter Fallouja to attack insurgents and the Iraqi government opposed such a move.

"You're asking for a 'yes' or 'no' answer in a particularly difficult circumstance," Negroponte replied, saying that such a situation would have to be "the subject of real dialogue between our military commanders, the new Iraqi government, and I think the U.S. [Embassy] as well."

For an unspecified period, Negroponte said, the Iraqi armed forces would remain under the unified command of the coalition, and American forces would be free to act in self-defense. "They're going to be free to operate in Iraq as best they see fit," he said.

But as fighting continued between American soldiers and Iraqi insurgents in separate battles for Najaf and Fallouja on Tuesday, members of the Iraqi Governing Council warned that the United States was not ceding sufficient authority. For example, the caretaker government envisioned by Brahimi would not be empowered to make laws.

"It will not be real sovereignty," said council member Mahmoud Othman, according to Associated Press. "The less sovereignty there is, the less the possibility that the government will be able to work and achieve its tasks."

Council member Ahmed Chalabi, the U.S.-backed Iraqi exile leader who has been campaigning against Brahimi's handover plan, also called for a larger Iraqi role in managing the nation's financial affairs, reconstruction and security.

Negroponte stressed in his testimony that building up the Iraqi security forces to deal with both domestic extremists and foreign terrorists would be the key to lasting security in Iraq and a top American priority.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the post of U.S. envoy to Iraq "one of the most consequential ambassadorships in American history."

Given the urgency of the Iraq situation, Lugar said the committee would vote on Negroponte's nomination Thursday. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he saw no reason to delay approval by the full Senate.

Negroponte's 2001 confirmation as U.N. ambassador had been delayed over allegations that he had ignored human rights abuses while he was ambassador to Honduras. But the subject was mentioned only in passing by two senators who had been critical of Negroponte's record at that time.

The two senators, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), told Negroponte they intended to support him. A protester demanding that the Senate look into Negroponte's alleged connections to a Honduran death squad was escorted from the hearing room without prompting comment.

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