BRUSSELS—The United States and European nations met Thursday for the first time since the start of a war that bitterly divided them and confronted another potentially explosive question: Who should reconstruct and rule post-war Iraq?
European diplomats pressed Secretary of State Colin Powell to give the United Nations a major role in establishing a new government in Baghdad and making other key decisions about the future of the country after Saddam Hussein is gone.
But that view is at odds with the Bush administration's. Washington, while not ruling out a place for the United Nations, is drawing up plans to oversee Iraq's reconstruction and install an interim Iraqi government.
"I think the coalition has to play the leading role in determining the way forward. That is not to say we will shut others out," Powell said after a hectic day of meetings with colleagues at North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters.
Powell said it was time to move beyond the "heated disagreements, serious disagreements" over the U.S. decision to go to war "and align ourselves again, with the need to serve the Iraqi people."
His European counterparts agreed, but did not back off their view that the United Nations, which Washington abandoned in its decision to invade Iraq, must be returned to center stage.
France and other European powers, where opposition to the war reflected public opinion, say they will not be able to get domestic backing for reconstruction aid or peacekeeping troops unless the United Nations controls the process.
"If he (Powell) wasn't before, he's very much aware now of the importance that the European Union attaches to a U.N. role," said Christopher Patten, the EU's external affairs commissioner.
Still, Powell's hastily arranged visit here seemed to heal, at least a little, the breach in trans-Atlantic relations caused by the war.
Numerous foreign ministers praised the secretary's decision to come and listen to their views, calling it an example of consultation that the Bush administration has too frequently skipped in the past.
"Today's discussions were characterized by a complete lack of acrimony," said Lord George Robertson, secretary-general of the 19-nation NATO alliance.
When a reporter suggested Robertson was perhaps too optimistic, the NATO chief replied: "I'm always optimistic, but I'm not stupid."
The picture is further clouded by a raging battle in Washington over post-war Iraq.
Aides to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would like symbolic blessing from the United Nations for their plans to install a new Iraqi government, but little else. Some Pentagon officials are pushing a plan to appoint a new administration dominated by Iraqi exiles and members of the Iraqi National Congress, led by controversial figure Ahmed Chalabi.
State Department and CIA officials say the new government must be made of Iraqis who have remained in the country as well as the exiled opposition. And Powell sees a U.N. role that is more than symbolic.
Powell said the nature of that role was still under discussion.
"We can't base European policy on criticizing the U.S. But we also can't base European policy on persuading the Pentagon," said EU official Patten.
The discussions Thursday dwelt mostly on generalities, with the potentially contentious details of a post-war plan put off for later, the diplomats and officials said.
Powell said he told his colleagues that in the initial period after the fighting stops, coalition military commanders would be responsible for stabilizing the security situation, eliminating weapons of mass destruction and disarming remnants of the Iraqi army that pose a threat.
At the same time, Powell said, the coalition will create an interim Iraqi authority that will be given increasing power as time goes by.
He said he hoped U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will soon appoint a personal representative for Iraq who will supervise the flow of humanitarian aid and work with the coalition that sent military forces to the Persian Gulf.
Virtually every European nation wants a larger U.N. role than that.
Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush's staunchest ally in the war on Iraq, has parted ways with him on the issue.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin acknowledged that the United States and British forces on the ground in Iraq will have initial responsibility for what happens in the country. "But beyond that the U.N. will have to intervene," he said.
Still, de Villepin, who led international resistance to a war in Iraq, seemed to be at pains to avoid another dust-up.
"I think we should be very pragmatic," he said.
European diplomats also pressed Powell to rapidly begin mediating peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which they see as an antidote to the anger stirred up in the Arab world by the Iraq campaign.
Bush and Powell have said that a "road map" for peace will be released as soon as the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, is confirmed in office.
The road map should not merely be published, but rapidly implemented, the Europeans said.
The diplomats also discussed a possible role for NATO in post-war Iraq, but came to no conclusions.
NATO, too, was fractured by the Iraq war, when France and Germany balked at invoking the alliance's self-defense clause to protect Turkey in case it was attacked by neighboring Iraq.
Said Lord Robertson: "I believe today's meeting shows we are through the worst."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.