GENEVA, Switzerland—The five major U.N. powers failed Saturday to agree on a formula for post-war Iraq, as a major disagreement persisted between the Bush administration and France over how fast to turn back power to a new Iraqi government.
The outcome of the meeting here between the foreign ministers of Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States appeared to be a setback for the White House's efforts to gain greater international backing for the troubled Iraq reconstruction effort.
After the talks, called by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Secretary of State Colin Powell told a news conference that he was "encouraged by the points of convergence, but also recognize that there are still some differences that have to be worked out."
Diplomats said France was sticking by its proposal for an almost immediate transfer of power to a new Iraqi government, with the help of the United Nations, and a rapid phasing out of the U.S. occupation.
Washington sees that proposal as both unworkable and unwise, and has insisted instead that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority play a key role in helping the Iraqis draw up a slower timetable for full self-government.
Powell, in a briefing afterward for reporters traveling with him, said there was an intense discussion of how quickly Iraqis could take such steps as assuming self-government, drafting a constitution and holding elections.
The U.S. view, he said, is that it would be a mistake to move too rashly. "The worst thing you can do is set them up for failure," he said of a future Iraqi government.
White House officials had no immediate response to the events in Geneva. Earlier in the day, President Bush said the U.S. and the provisional authority were moving steadily towards handing Iraq back to the Iraqis.
In his weekly radio address, Bush said a governing council of Iraqi citizens has selected a committee that is working on a process to allow Iraqis to draft a new constitution for their country.
" And when a constitution has been drafted and ratified by the Iraqi people, Iraq will enjoy free and fair elections, and the coalition will yield its remaining authority to a free and sovereign Iraqi government," Bush said.
Several American and foreign critics of Washington's reconstruction efforts in Iraq believe the speed of transition from U.S. to Iraqi control has been hampered by a series of miscues and miscalculations in Iraq, ranging from slowly establishing law and order in the country to believing that a vast number of Iraqis would warmly greet an occupying authority.
"It (Civilian Provisional Authority) has made practically every mistake in the book," said David Ransom, an analyst for the Middle East Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain from 1994 to 1997. "They got off to an abysmal start."
That said, Ransom said following France's proposal to accelerate the transition to a civilian government would be a recipe for disaster.
"The possibility of in-fighting between (Iraqi) groups is too high," Ransom said. "Nobody wants a civil war."
But a swift move to independent civilian control of Iraq could restore confidence within Iraq, give it legitimacy within the Middle East and international community, and loosen the purse strings of countries that have been reluctant to donate money and manpower to rebuilding efforts, according to Shibley Telhami, a Middle East analyst for the Brookings Institution.
"In principal, Iraqi people running the government is a good thing, for the people of Iraq, the reintegration of Iraq in the world community," Telhami said. "But in reality, an Iraqi government (now) doesn't have the capacity to run the country. The American role, in the short term, is indispensable. Nobody else can do it."
Annan, Powell and the other diplomats said the talks over lunch and later in the historic Palais des Nations did succeed in some narrowing of the gaps.
The French objective was "to try to find solutions, not to create new problems," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. "It was (in) a constructive spirit that the discussions took place."
Nonetheless, the split mirrors the deep differences between Paris and Washington over starting the Iraq war in the first place.
Some U.S. officials privately suspect that France, which vigorously opposed the war and blocked U.N. backing for it, will never agree to a formula that helps extricate Bush from his Iraq difficulties.
The senior diplomats here said the talks would now return to New York, where the United Nations holds its annual meeting of world leaders later in September.
But Powell over the last several days has seemed to hint that the United States believes it already has the necessary nine votes on the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution—a development that effectively would force France to decide whether to use its veto.
De Villepin did not respond directly to a question about France's use of its Security Council veto.
Powell and de Villepin met alone briefly on the sidelines of Saturday's talks, but the subject of their conversation was not disclosed.
The United States and Britain hope the new U.N. resolution will lead more nations to contribute troops and financing for the Iraq rebuilding effort. A donors' conference for Iraq is slated for late October in Madrid, Spain.
After the talks here, Powell was to head to Iraq to check firsthand on reconstruction efforts, State Department announced Saturday.
It will be his first visit to Iraq since the U.S.-led war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Powell also will visit neighboring Kuwait.
Envoys from the diplomatic "Quartet" that guides the Middle East peace process—the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia—also met separately here to discuss the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel's threats to remove Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Details from those talks were unavailable.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent William Douglas in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.