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U.S. working to prevent a destabilized Iraq, Powell says

WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday that the Bush administration is "extremely sensitive" to the danger that Iraq could become destabilized after the United States returns sovereignty on June 30, and it is working to ensure there are clear lines of authority.

In an interview with Knight Ridder, Powell acknowledged there are legitimate concerns about Iraq's future after the handover of sovereignty, which will change the status of 100,000 U.S. troops serving alongside tens of thousands of newly trained Iraqi security forces.

"It will be different. And we don't want it to be a destabilized situation or a situation that could tilt in the wrong direction," he said.

With a U.S.-backed plan for restoring Iraqi rule in flux and elections on hold for now, questions are growing about whether a U.S.-backed caretaker government could control the country. Insurgents attack American troops and Iraqis cooperating with them almost daily.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced Thursday that he agrees with the United States that it will be impossible to hold free and fair elections by June 30. Annan also said the June 30 date should be respected.

Powell, welcoming that endorsement of Bush administration policy, said the United States is working on "a very fast track" to come up with a new plan to select an interim government. No decisions have been made, he said.

The previous plan, which involved a complex system of caucuses to choose an interim parliament, was blocked by objections from the leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

Powell confirmed that one option under discussion—which he termed an "obvious option"—is to hand power over to some version of the 25-member, American-picked Iraqi Governing Council.

The governing council "doesn't have as good a balance of the different factions in Iraq as it might have," the secretary said. "Another idea might be to expand it and widen its appeal."

Some observers, inside and outside Iraq, question whether the council, which is viewed as dependent on Washington for support, could effectively administer the country.

Another option, Powell said, would be to convene "a group of wise men or some group of elders," in roughly the same fashion as was done in Afghanistan. Iraq, however, doesn't have quite the same tradition, Powell noted.

The Bush administration, which is now working more closely with the United Nations than at any time since the Iraq war, has little time to come up with a revised plan for post-Saddam Iraq.

An administrative law, which will serve as sort of an interim constitution, is supposed to be drawn up by the end of February.

Once that is complete, "then it's important for us to work quickly to give the Iraqi people a sense of what the transitional government will look like," Powell said.

The Bush administration is adamant in its refusal to change the June 30 date for returning sovereignty to the Iraqis. Some observers say the date is driven by President Bush's desire to have the transfer complete well before the U.S. presidential election, a charge Powell and other top officials have denied.

After June 30, there will be roughly 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and as many as 200,000 Iraqi security forces. There's still a question of whose command the Iraqi forces will operate under "and who answers what orders," Powell said.

"We will have to work out arrangements and make sure there are clear understandings between the new (American) ambassador and the new embassy structure, and the (Iraqi) transitional government, and our military commanders on the ground and whatever U.N. representation might be there."

The new U.S. Embassy in Iraq will one of the largest American diplomatic facilities in the world.

In the interview in his personal office at the State Department, Powell also addressed a host of weapons proliferation issues facing the United States.

He said the United States will insist on a complete rollback of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs when six-nation talks reconvene next week.

"It might begin with a freeze. It can't end with a freeze. It can't be a suspension" by Pyongyang, he said.

The North Korean government, while admitting to working on a plutonium-based nuclear weapons program, has denied U.S. charges that it also has a uranium-based program.

But South Korean media reports on Thursday said North Korea has suggested it may be willing to own up to the uranium program as well.

Powell, sounding mildly optimistic, said, "I think there's a way forward."

The United States has said it and its partners will offer North Korea security guarantees and other assistance, particularly with energy, but it doesn't plan to make the offer explicit until Pyongyang begins to irreversibly dismantle its nuclear programs.

On Iran, Powell said it was "not a big surprise to me" that reports have surfaced of nuclear activity that Tehran hadn't shared with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

On Libya, the secretary of state said the Bush administration is "anxious to move" on lifting a travel ban for U.S. citizens and easing economic sanctions.

The government of Col. Moammar Gadhafi is "doing everything they said they would do" to turn over Libya's weapons of mass destruction programs, he said.

While there have been intense debates over Libya's reversal on its weapons programs, Powell made his thesis clear:

"Maybe (it was) just Col. Gadhafi sitting around his tent one day, and saying, `What has all this stuff gotten me? Spent a lot of money. It's hidden. Everybody's looking for it. Can't eat it. I can't sell it. But I can't get any investment. Nobody will see me. But I can't go anywhere. ... What has it done for me? And nobody seems to be scared.'"

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): POWELL

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Colin+Powell

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