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U.S. Yields, Offers to Set Deadline on Iraq

Times Staff Writers

In a major concession to win international support in Iraq, the United States plans to introduce a new Security Council resolution today that gives the Iraqi Governing Council until Dec. 15 to set a timetable for holding elections and writing a new constitution.

U.S. officials had vigorously resisted including deadlines in previous resolutions, but they apparently bowed to demands from France, Germany and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the U.S.-led administration quickly transfer power to Iraqis to end growing violence against the occupation.

Addressing demands for a quick return to self-rule, the draft proposes to recognize the Governing Council as the entity that would “embody the sovereignty” of Iraq until an elected government is established. But legal experts and diplomats questioned whether granting sovereignty while retaining authority as the occupying power is legally possible -- or just a linguistic twist to finesse council members’ demands.

The revised draft, which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sent to most of the council’s foreign ministers over the weekend, is a bid to win more troops and international aid at an important donors conference at the end of the month.

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Initial reaction from the 15-member council was largely positive Monday. A few council members expressed some reservations, saying the draft excluded the U.N. from playing a leading role in rebuilding Iraq and did not give the Iraqis any real authority.

But France, the resolution’s leading critic, called the U.S. draft “a step in the right direction, to [give] the Iraqis the feeling that they have their future again in their hands.”

That sentiment was echoed by Wang Guangya, the Chinese ambassador to the U.N., who said the new version “represents an important step forward,” but he added that he would like to see further amendments giving the U.N. “a central, pivotal, fundamental role.”

German Ambassador Gunter Pleuger said he wanted to discuss how the Governing Council would “embody” sovereignty, “what it means and what the legal implication is of that.”

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Even though the draft authorizes a multinational force under U.S. command, few troops are expected to come from council nations. But the U.S. hopes that U.N. approval will encourage other undecided countries -- including Bangladesh and India -- to send soldiers.

Under the latest draft, the U.S. would report to the Security Council every six months on progress toward handing power to the Iraqis. The council would review the operation after a year -- with the option to withdraw its endorsement of a multinational force if it doesn’t like the progress, a U.S. official said.

In language that appeared deliberately ambiguous, the resolution declares that the Governing Council “will embody the sovereignty of the state of Iraq” until an internationally recognized representative government is established.

It also makes clear that the U.S.-led administration has overall authority and retains the responsibilities of an occupying power, though it emphasizes that power’s “temporary nature.”

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“We make a distinction between the concept of sovereignty on the one hand and the exercise of specific authorities and governmental functions,” said U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte. “The sovereignty of Iraq resides in the state of Iraq. But the Coalition Provisional Authority is temporarily exercising certain authorities and obligations of governance.”

The resolution calls for a “vital” -- but not central -- U.N. role, although Annan has said that because of recent attacks on U.N. offices in Baghdad, he will send U.N. employees only if they are to play an “indispensable” role, and only when security is much improved. The resolution leaves room for a U.N. role to grow in the future “as circumstances permit.”

The new formulation of Iraq’s sovereignty -- granting it symbolically to the Governing Council while the U.S. retains actual authority -- has caused considerable confusion among Security Council members.

Several diplomats said they wanted clarification of what the interim administration’s actual powers were: Could it renegotiate Iraq’s debt or receive international loans? Could it refuse to accept Turkish troops on Iraqi soil, as some Governing Council members desire? Could it end the occupation?

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The U.S.-led authority does remain in control, despite sovereignty being “embodied” in the Governing Council, said Ruth Wedgewood, a professor of international law at Johns Hopkins University and an advisor to the Bush administration. “We are still responsible under the law of armed conflict to maintain security and ensure there are minimum necessary goods, so it doesn’t relieve us of our duty. We never claimed to be [the] sovereign” in Iraq.

“ ‘Embodies’ is an ambiguous word,” she added. “It is largely symbolic, but if it pleases the French and it pleases the Iraqis, then it’s OK.”

Pleasing at least a majority of the council is what the revised resolution is all about. As of Thursday, Annan’s dissatisfaction with the earlier draft had caused the council’s consultations to stall, and Bush administration officials were considering dropping the measure.

Annan demanded a central and separate role for the U.N., blaming confusion over the world body’s status for the deaths of 25 staff members in two attacks within a month.

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Veto-holding members France, China and Russia and elected members Syria and Germany said last week that they would abstain, probably bringing other countries along. That would mean the resolution would fail at a time when the U.S. desperately needs more troops and money to shore up its operations in Iraq.

But by late Friday, the State Department had received positive feedback to the new formulation of Iraqi sovereignty, which encouraged them to forge ahead. The State Department had to negotiate nearly as intensely within the Pentagon and National Security Council as with the U.N. Security Council for a final push, U.S. officials said privately.

Powell pressed his counterparts hard, causing some ambassadors to complain of a “preemptive” campaign.

One diplomat said council members were being induced, if not seduced, into approving a measure that set significant precedents.

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“This resolution legitimizes, as never before, an occupying power into a legitimate participant,” he said. “The occupiers will have a multinational force and an appointed government at their service.”

The U.S. wants to hold a vote Wednesday or Thursday morning, before Powell and President Bush travel to Bangkok for an Asian trade summit.

So far, France, Russia, China, Syria and Germany are still signaling abstentions. American diplomats are trying to persuade Russia and China in particular to support the resolution. Their concern is that if those two veto-holding powers withhold their votes, it would attract abstentions by others, causing the resolution to come up without the nine votes required to pass.

“I would ask those who are fence-sitting to consider two points,” said a senior U.S. diplomat. “I would ask them to tell their boss, ‘Hey, this may not be everything you want, but is it a step in the right direction? Is it the way you want it to go?’ ”

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He said the U.S. hadn’t ruled out French and German demands that a provisional government be established before the lengthy process of drafting a constitution and holding elections -- but they hadn’t ruled it in, either. The U.S. was trying to balance progress toward returning self-rule to Iraq with the reality of an unstable situation on the ground, he said. “Our focus is on international support.”

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Farley reported from the United Nations and Efron from Washington.


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