Wed, Oct 01, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Gap between powers re-emerges

AP AND REUTERS , BRUSSELS AND WASHINGTON

Old rifts over Iraq on Monday plagued efforts to forge a common European position on when the US should cede power and sovereignty to an independent Iraqi government.

At a monthly meeting of EU foreign ministers, France and Britain remained divided on the timing of a handover of power, with Paris pushing to see a new Iraqi government in place by the year's end, even a temporary one.

"We think that would create favorable conditions for" Iraq's reconstruction, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told reporters. "France insists on the implementation of a rapid transfer of power ... within several months."

Britain's Minister for Europe Denis MacShane, sitting in for Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, said any transition timetable should be carefully thought out to avoid risks of failure, a line that echoes Washington's.

"People want to see a smooth transition, that's British policy and the American policy," he said.

"The crucial thing is that Europe works jointly to give Iraqi people what they want -- and that is security," he said.

Germany, which opposed the US and British-led invasion of Iraq but in recent weeks has moved closer to Washington, did not insist on a timetable for transfer of power to the Iraqis from the US occupation forces.

"We will actively support the sovereignty of the Iraqi people and at the same time avoid new risks," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said, adding it was important to avoid a "power vacuum" in Iraq.

All 15 EU nations agreed on a statement though that the UN "should play a vital role" in Iraq's reconstruction.

The foreign ministers said a new UN resolution was essential to formalize a transfer of power from the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. They said it was necessary to reach a deal "on a realistic schedule for handing over political control to the Iraqi people ... as soon as feasible."

The issue over how quickly power should be given back to the Iraqis still divides the UN Security Council, where both France and the US have competing vetoes. Negotiations on a compromise draft are continuing on the sidelines of a General Assembly meeting in New York.

France, Germany and Belgium were the most vocal EU nations opposing the war while Britain sent troops and sided with the US. The Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Spain have also recently sent troops, but many other countries have refused, saying they needed to see a UN authorization first.

The EU foreign ministers asked foreign policy chief Javier Solana to develop proposals on an "enhanced EU role in Iraq," including the possible dispatch of peacekeepers.

France expected the US to circulate a revised UN draft yesterday.

Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said a lot of work remained to be done to get consensus on Iraq both in Europe and at the UN "This [draft] could be the beginning of a solution, but we are not there yet," he said.

US officials have said Washington may give the UN a role in the elections and political transformation of Iraq, as France and others have demanded.

Despite their differences, the EU foreign ministers on Monday stressed their commitment "to help achieve the goal of creating a stable and prosperous Iraq with a representative government."

Meanwhile, an Iraqi group working on a new Constitution said it would be impossible to complete the job within the US goal of six months because of deep disagreements over major issues, The Washington Post reported yesterday.

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