Berlin talks to aim for consensus on Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 23-Sep-03 | Author: Richard Bernstein| Source: International Herald Tribune

Germany, France and U.K. will try to mend fences

BERLIN - The leaders of France, Germany and Britain announced Tuesday that they will hold a meeting here Saturday, their first meeting since the Iraq war ended five months ago. The aim appeared to be to work out a common position about the American request for help in postwar reconstruction.

"The meeting will serve to reach common ground on foreign policy after the differing views that arose before the Iraq war," the German government said in a statement.

The meeting, to be hosted by the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, will follow by a week an unsuccessful effort by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to bridge differences over Iraq policy between the United States and some European countries led by France.

In essence, the French, with German support, have said that they would only agree to authorize a United Nations force requested by the United States if the American side agreed to transfer most of the authority in Iraq from the occupation authorities to the Security Council. The French have also asked for sovereignty to be transferred to Iraq in accordance with an accelerated timetable that the United States has called unreasonable.

The three leaders who will meet Saturday were deeply split over American policy toward Iraq in the months leading up to and including the war, with France and Germany vigorously opposed to military action and Britain just as vigorously backing the United States.

Since the war, Britain has continued to support American control in Iraq, but it has also been more receptive than the United States to seeking Security Council authorization for postwar reconstruction.

In London, a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said of the meeting Saturday, "It will be a chance for fairly wide-ranging discussions on economic matters, international affairs. Obviously, Iraq will be discussed and also other European matters."

A major theme of French and German policy both before and since the Iraqi war has been the need for the European Union to assume common positions on foreign policy and security questions. But that goal was sharply set back by the ferocious disagreements within Europe provoked by the American drive to undertake military action in Iraq, with France and Germany disagreeing not only from Britain, Italy and Spain, but also with some countries about to join the EU, especially Poland.

In addition - in another gesture that both antagonized the United States and created fissures within Europe - France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg announced in April that they would set up a military planning center outside Brussels that would be independent of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The British were not invited to participate in the planning center, which has been criticized by the United States as harmful to NATO.

But the main contention between the French and the Germans on one side and the United States on the other has to do with the American turn to the Security Council for help in Iraq.

The United States two weeks ago drafted the text of proposed Security Council resolution that would authorize a UN force for Iraq, but even as the text was circulated, American officials made it clear that they wanted the United States to remain firmly in control of that force and of the political effort to build a new, democratic Iraqi government.

Meeting in Dresden a week ago, Chirac and Schröder rejected the American draft, saying that it did not move quickly enough toward restoring sovereignty in Iraq to the Iraqis.

In the meantime, the French and the Americans have publicly stated their sharply different views of what is to be done in Iraq, with the French insisting that the Security Council be put at the center of further actions and the United States wanting to remain in charge.

"The French position is that expressed by French authorities," a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hervé Ladsous, said, noting that the position had been spelled out by President Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Neither used the word "symbolic."

France has called for a speedy transition to Iraqi rule with a provisional Iraqi government in place within a month, a draft constitution by the end of the year, and elections next spring.

The French ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, said Monday that Paris would like to add two points to the U.S. draft resolution, including "a symbolic transfer of sovereignty of Iraq in the hands of the Governing Council of Iraq."

After that, there should be "as expeditiously as possible the transfer of responsibilities in the hands of the ministers as soon as they are ready to adopt these responsibilities," Levitte said in a television interview.

Responding to reporters' questions in Paris as to whether France was softening its position with a "symbolic transfer of sovereignty," Ladsous indicated that was not the case.

"The current Iraqi institutions, that is the Governing Council and the recently named ministers, would be considered a depository of Iraqi sovereignty in the transition period," he said.

The spokesman did not mention the ambassador or use the word "symbolic" to clarify the French position.

De Villepin referred to a "radically new approach" in an article published Saturday in a newspaper, Le Monde.

Paris wants Iraq's sovereignty recognized "very quickly, as quickly as possible," said a French diplomatic source, speaking on condition he not be named.

This would amount a "very strong political gesture with immediately consequences" - like allowing Iraq to recover its seat at the United Nations, the diplomat said.

Once sovereignty is transferred, Paris is prepared to accept a progressive transfer of executive power, he added.