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Powell: U.S. would withdraw troops at request of Iraqi government

WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Colin Powell, under pressure from European nations to give as much power as possible to an interim Iraqi government, said Friday that the United States would withdraw its troops from Iraq if the new government asked it to do so.

"Were this interim government to say to us, `We really think we can handle this on our own; it would be better if you were to leave,' we would leave," he said at a news conference.

He was seconded by the foreign ministers of Great Britain, Italy and Japan, which also have contingents in Iraq.

But Powell said he believed it was highly unlikely that the new Iraqi government would make such a request. "So I'm losing absolutely no sleep thinking that they might ask us to leave during this interim period," he said.

How much power the interim government will have is a major unanswered question six weeks before U.S. officials are scheduled to return sovereignty to an as-yet-unnamed Iraqi government on June 30.

European nations that opposed the Iraq war pressed the Bush administration Friday to cede maximum authority to the interim government, including giving it some control over Iraq's armed forces.

France, which has led the opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq, wants Iraq to have a say in controlling its own military and wants the American military presence there to be "reviewed" after elections in January, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told reporters.

" ... This government should be a sovereign government with all the trappings of sovereignty, but also the hard facts of sovereignty," said Barnier.

The United States is insisting that the Iraqi army and other security units continue reporting to the U.S. commander in Iraq after June 30, in order to avoid competing chains of command.

Agreement on how much power to give the interim government is critical if the United States is to win support for a United Nations resolution endorsing the turnover plan. Such a resolution would allow the United States to share more of the burden for developments in Iraq.

Despite the differing viewpoints, all sides appear eager to avoid another major political dispute over Iraq like the one over the U.S. decision to go to war.

With time running out before the planned hand-over, there are major incentives to come to an agreement, diplomats said.

Bush met briefly with the foreign ministers early Friday and talked "about the importance of putting aside past differences and all of us working together," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

The issue of what would happen if the new Iraq government were to ask the U.S. military to leave has been the subject of speculation in Congress and elsewhere since the idea of turning over power to Iraqis was first broached last fall.

The first version of the turnover plan called for an agreement on coalition troops to have been negotiated in March, but that scheme was abandoned, and there's no written plan to govern a continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Powell said that once an interim Iraqi government is chosen, the United States would set up a liaison process so Iraqi authorities would be kept current on U.S. military operations.

It seemed clear, however, that the American military commander would have the final say.

Powell left Friday night for a two-day trip to Jordan, during which he'll seek to soothe Arab anger over the abuse of Iraqi detainees and Bush administration Middle East policies.


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