Susan Walsh  /  AP
President Bush meets with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in the Oval Office, Tuesday.
updated 2/4/2004 4:48:02 PM ET 2004-02-04T21:48:02

The Bush administration is sticking to its timetable for Iraq self-rule, even if the U.N. team being dispatched by Secretary-General Kofi Annan fails to break the impasse in that country over creating a transitional government, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

“Our actions, our planning is all designed to make this transfer of power work on June 30th, as planned,” the State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. “So as the U.N. looks at this situation, they understand that that’s a goal that we all want to achieve.”

The spokesman added, however, that Annan said during talks Tuesday in Washington that “he might have some ideas on the June 30th date, so we will have to see what they are.”

Beyond Iraq, the administration said it was preparing to take to the airwaves to combat anti-American rhetoric. A new TV network dubbed “The Free One” in Arabic will begin broadcasting next week across the Middle East, President Bush said.

“Freedom of the press and the free flow of ideas are vital foundations of liberty,” Bush said. “To cut through the hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world and to promote open debate, we’re broadcasting a message of tolerance and truth in Arabic and Persian to tens of millions.”

The network will show news, movies, sports and entertainment programming, Bush said.

Standing firm on deadline
In New York, Annan said the U.S. administrators and the Iraqi Governing Council both considered the June 30 date essential.

Annan told reporters at U.N. headquarters that his team would try to determine if elections were possible before the deadline or if there were options that would be acceptable to the Iraqis.

“We will be open and talk to as many Iraqis as possible, to try and get to understand what it is that they are worried about,” he said.

Three U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was looking to the United Nations to help end the dispute in Iraq over U.S. postwar plans but not to assume control of the process.

While the White House is open to some refinements, the June 30 deadline for ending the U.S. occupation is firm, they said.

Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, in meetings Tuesday with Annan, solicited U.N. help in removing obstacles to ending the U.S. occupation by June 30 and, beyond that, putting Iraq on a path to constitutional self-rule, said the officials.

Shiite clerics have raised objections to the plan, which would rely on caucuses and not direct elections, to select the interim legislature. Although the Bush administration has stressed there would be elections in 2005, Shiite opposition has not subsided.

After the meeting Annan said he soon would send a team of experts to Iraq “to help them work out this problem and hopefully they will come to some consensus and agreement as to how to move forward.”

Hoping to break impasse
Annan said the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, headed by L. Paul Bremer, and the Iraqi Governing Council had indicated “they would accept the conclusions of the U.N. team. So we do have a chance to help break the impasse which exists at the moment and move forward.”

But the U.S. officials said Wednesday that even if Annan’s team fails to make substantial headway the administration will not postpone Iraqi self-rule.

The U.S. plans to hand over Iraq were thrown into turmoil when Iraq’s most prominent Shiite leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, demanded direct elections to choose a provisional assembly. The United States wants to stick with a plan agreed upon on last Nov. 15, which calls for caucuses to choose the body.

The Bush administration, which had kept the United Nations at a distance as it mobilized last year for war with Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, now acknowledges that Annan and the United Nations could give more credibility to U.S. plans in Iraq.

The administration is anxious to settle the problem as Bush heads into a presidential election campaign and faces a steadily rising U.S. death toll in Iraq.

Annan said all parties agree sovereignty should be handed over to Iraq as soon as possible. “The date of 30 June has been suggested, but there is some disagreement as to the mechanism for establishing the provisional government,” Annan said.

“And I hope this team I’m sending in will be able to play a role, getting the Iraqis to understand that if they could come to some consensus and some agreement on how to establish that government, they’re halfway there,” he said.

Annan said the U.N. group was authorized by the coalition authority and the governing council “to review whether elections are possible or not, help with the design of the caucus system or propose other options.”

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