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Negroponte: Cooperating with U.N. in `strategic interest' of U.S.

WASHINGTON—The United States will follow the lead of a special United Nations envoy in selecting an interim government in Iraq, President Bush's pick to be the first U.S. ambassador to post-Saddam Iraq told a Senate committee Tuesday.

The U.S. government considers cooperation with the world body "in our strategic interest," said the nominee, John Negroponte, a veteran diplomat.

Negroponte's comments come amid an intensifying struggle to shape the caretaker Iraqi government that is to reclaim sovereignty on June 30.

Behind the scenes, State Department and Pentagon officials have engaged in fierce feuding over control of Iraq operations, officials in both departments said, delaying Bush's signing of a formal presidential directive that will settle which department controls what in Iraq after June 30.

The United Nations' special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that it's possible to select a caretaker government by the end of May. Brahimi has proposed an interim government of technocrats with no future political ambitions, excluding members of the current U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council.

That effort has drawn fire from Iraqi exiles once favored by some officials in Washington, including Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi.

Chalabi, a member of the Governing Council, has questioned Brahimi's neutrality and insisted that the interim government be given more than the limited powers now envisioned. The government is expected to last only until elections are held in early 2005.

The Arab television station al Arabiya quoted Chalabi as saying he had told U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer "that Iraqis should have a bigger role in security. We tell him that Iraqis should have a bigger role in taking financial decisions. We tell him that Iraqis should have a role in running the Iraqi reconstruction fund."

Senate Foreign Relation Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., citing Chalabi's comments, urged Negroponte, who appears headed for quick confirmation, to work to gain broad acceptance in Iraq for the U.N. choices.

It's essential "that the Iraqis, in fact, are going to see these people as worthy of the sovereignty that we are passing on, because it may not be a laid-down hand," Lugar said.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the panel's leading Democrat, pressed Negroponte to pledge that the United States would back Brahimi's choices even if they exclude former Iraqi exiles, such as Chalabi, who have long had backing in Washington.

Biden cited what he said was continued deep disagreement within the Bush administration over what future roles, if any, Chalabi and other former exiles should play. "And I predict to you Mr. Chalabi will not go quietly into the night," the senator said.

Negroponte, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wouldn't go that far.

"Are you asking me does (Brahimi) have a blank check? I chose my words carefully," he said. "We will make every effort to give his recommendations the greatest possible weight."

Still, Negroponte's comments on seeking more international cooperation drew bipartisan praise from lawmakers and illustrate the U-turn the Bush administration has made in policy as it attempts to stabilize Iraq and prevent it from sliding into civil war.

Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq without specific U.N. authorization and, until recently, avoided ceding any real authority in Iraq to the world body.

Although there was broad support in the Senate hearing for a greater role for the United Nations and more international cooperation on Iraq, one senator criticized the U.N. envoy.

Brahimi, an Algerian, said last week that Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and U.S. backing for those policies are "the greatest poison" in the Middle East.

The remarks are "extremely disturbing," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told Negroponte. "And so you've got a man out there who the administration has put its faith in—we all call for greater U.N. participation. And these are his comments."

Senators from both parties, led by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., repeated concerns over whether the caretaker Iraqi government will have full sovereignty and, for example, could veto U.S. military operations, such as those under way in Fallujah.

U.S. military forces "are going to be free to operate in Iraq as they best see fit," Negroponte said. Still, he said, "it's certainly going to be a lot more sovereignty than they have right now."

If confirmed, Negroponte will take over one of the largest U.S. embassies worldwide, with about 1,000 U.S. employees, 700 Iraqis and the biggest CIA station in the world.

Negroponte told the panel that he would oversee all U.S. government activities in Iraq "with the notable exception" of U.S. military operations.

Washington turf battles are now largely settled, said officials in the State Department and Pentagon. The State Department will control most functions, but Defense will retain control over the massive contracting operation in Iraq, said a Pentagon official, who, like others, requested anonymity.


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

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


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