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Bush's plan gets tepid response from Europe, Iraq

WASHINGTON—President Bush's plan for transforming Iraq met resistance from European leaders and some Iraqis on Tuesday as skeptics pressed for more details on the planned transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government.

A senior Bush administration official in Baghdad said U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is "on course" to announce by Monday or Tuesday the make-up of an Iraqi interim government, and officials in Washington said one name, that of Iraqi nuclear scientist Hussain Shahristani, was in the "final running" to be prime minister.

But even as Brahimi goes through a "handful" of names for the positions of president, two vice presidents, prime minister and 26 Cabinet ministers, there were still open questions about how much control the interim government will have over Iraqi and U.S. military forces.

Disputes over the role of those troops soured the outlook for swift international endorsement of the plan Bush outlined Monday night in a speech at the U.S. Army War College.

Several European leaders called for more restraints on the American-led forces that will remain after next month. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest European ally, seemed to split with the White House by suggesting that the interim government should have veto power over U.S. military operations in Iraq.

"That has to be done with the consent of the Iraqi government, and the final political control remains with the Iraqi government," Blair told reporters in London. "That is what the transfer of sovereignty means."

French President Jacques Chirac told Bush that a U.N. resolution should give Iraqis a role in military decisions.

Bush's plan would give the caretaker government control of most domestic issues and Iraq's own weak security forces, but ultimately leaves Iraq's security in U.S. hands until beefed-up Iraqi security forces are ready to take charge. Bush said the 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq would stay "as long as necessary."

Secretary of State Colin Powell, asked about Blair's remarks, said that even if Iraqi authorities object, "U.S. forces remain under U.S. command and will do what is necessary to protect themselves."

Some experts predict that training an Iraqi force to replace them could take three years, but top administration officials have declined to offer a timetable.

"One can't tell. That's why we didn't want to put a specific deadline on it," Powell said on NBC's "Today" show. "We are anxious to build up Iraqi forces, start to step back, and then, as the situation improves, bring our troop numbers down."

Bush's plan calls for a force of 260,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and other security personnel, including a 35,000-member army. Only about 10 percent of Iraqi police will be fully trained by the June 30 handoff.

In Iraq, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council also called for Iraqi control over the U.S.-led coalition force.

"We understand sovereignty to be absolute," the Governing Council said in a written statement. Even Bush's plan to demolish Abu Ghraib prison, a detested symbol of torture under Saddam Hussein and prisoner abuse under U.S. occupation, met with dissent.

Although some members of the council endorsed the prison's destruction, interim Interior Minister Samir Shaker Mahmoud al Sumeidi said Tuesday that Iraq needs the facility to house "terrorists and criminals that we will be catching very soon."

But a group of Iraqis who had their hands chopped off at the prison for various offenses during Saddam's reign took a different view. During a visit to the White House Tuesday, they volunteered to help with the demolition.

Bush assured the Iraqis during an Oval Office visit that he would finish the job in Iraq.

"What President Chirac and others have said is they want to make sure that the transfer of sovereignty to the interim government is a real transfer. And that's what we want," Bush told reporters. "We'll help by making sure our security forces are there to work with their security forces."

But several key questions remained unanswered. Who will serve in the interim government? How much authority, if any, will it have over military operations? How long will U.S. troops stay? How much will the transition cost U.S. taxpayers?

In addition, while Bush said he planned to enlist more international support for rebuilding in Iraq, countries such as France, Germany and Belgium reiterated Tuesday they have no intention of sending troops.

"At the end of the day, what you have is legal authority being shifted to an interim government of questionable legitimacy and little power," said Lee Feinstein, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. "You'll have de facto American sovereignty by remote control."

Anthony Cordesman, a leading Iraq expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Bush's plan was more like a litany of good intentions. It left out key details or made rosy assumptions on security, the political transition, economic rebuilding and training Iraqi forces, Cordesman said in a nine-page critique.

The president "has outlined a high-risk strategy," Cordesman said. He "did not address these risks in any detail or with any objectivity."

One key problem Bush failed to address "is the lack of anything approaching a popular government a little over a month before the transfer of power," he said.

Another is the issue of what U.S. troops will be allowed to do after the handover.

France, Germany and Russia would like to put strict limits on the U.S. troop presence.

"Let's be clear: This resolution cannot be a blank check," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said in an interview with the French daily newspaper Le Figaro.

"Sharing means sharing," he said. "The Iraqi government must at the least be consulted on the initiatives of that (U.S.-led) force. It must retain sovereign government authority over the Iraqi forces."

U.S. officials hope to ease some of the concerns in a letter to the U.N. Security Council declaring the administration's willingness to coordinate military operations with the interim government.

The Europeans want the mandate for foreign troops to end in a year or so, unless it's explicitly extended by the United Nations. A draft resolution introduced by Washington and London on Monday says the mandate will be reviewed in a year, but makes no commitment about when foreign troops would have to withdraw.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Hannah Allam contributed to this report.)

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

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