President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair signaled their support Friday for a U.N. proposal to create an interim Iraqi government, with Bush calling it “broadly acceptable to the Iraqi people.”
The president also reiterated his vow that the handover would take place as scheduled June 30, despite increasing violence in Iraq apparently aimed at disrupting that timetable.
“No citizen of America or Britain would want their government in the hands of others, and neither do the Iraqis, and this is why the June 30th date for the transfer of sovereignty will be kept,” Bush said, adding that “coalition forces will remain in Iraq to help the new government succeed.”
Bush made his comments at a news conference in the sun-splashed White House Rose Garden, standing shoulder by shoulder with Blair, his principal ally in the effort to topple President Saddam Hussein and restore democracy in Iraq.
The meeting came amid rising casualties in Iraq and an increasingly violent resistance among some Iraqi factions opposed to the U.S. and British military presence in the country.
Blair: Increased violence expected
Blair echoed Bush’s comments broadly supporting the U.N. plan, although he added, “Obviously we have to discuss the details ... as to how this political transition is to come about.”
“The U.N. will have a central role, as now, in developing the program and machinery for political transition to full Iraqi democracy,” he said, adding that he and Bush would seek a new Security Council resolution to put the weight of the world body behind the shift.
In an , Blair said Friday afternoon that because violence from supporters of Saddam and others opposed to a free and democratic Iraq was expected, it was vital that the coalition maintain a strong presence in the country.
“We need the military and the political reinforcing each other,” Blair told NBC’s Tom Brokaw. “We’re not going to be able to do this without military action and without being prepared to be firm and tough.”
“As the date to transition to a sovereign Iraq draws near, there’s going to be violence ... from people who don’t want an Iraq future different from the past,” he said.
Bush and Blair were referring to a proposal floated Wednesday by the U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, to create a caretaker government to succeed the U.S. administration led by L. Paul Bremer. It would be led by a prime minister, and there would also be a president as head of state and two vice presidents.
In addition, a conference would be called to create a consultative assembly that would have no legislative powers.
Bush and Blair are trying to forge a strategy to get the United Nations to issue a new resolution on Iraq, hoping that might persuade more countries to send troops into the country and ease the U.S. and British burden. They are hopeful that Brahimi’s plan could be a first step toward achieving that goal.
U.S. seeks new force to protect U.N. facilities
Blair arrived in Washington from talks Thursday night with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York about Brahimi’s proposal.
Shortly before he and Bush spoke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, urged member nations to contribute troops for a new force dedicated to protecting U.N. staff and facilities in Iraq.
Negroponte said the troops would be under overall command of the U.S.-led multinational force authorized by the Security Council on Oct. 16, but he stressed that it would be a “discrete, separate” entity.
Brahimi has warned that security must be improved greatly for elections to be held early next year.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told European and Arab reporters in an interview Friday that he and Secretary of State Colin Powell would meet with Brahimi. Armitage, who heads for Iraq and the Persian Gulf this weekend, did not say when the meetings would be held.
Powell called Brahimi’s proposal “very sound” Thursday, and The New York Times quoted Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, in Friday’s editions as saying, “I don’t see anything at this point in what he’s proposing that would be of concern to us.”
The administration’s acceptance of U.N. involvement in plotting Iraq’s future marks an accelerated effort to achieve broader responsibility for transition in postwar Iraq.
Envoy to brief Annan on plan
Brahimi is due to return to New York soon — possibly late next week — to report to Annan. He will then go back to Baghdad for further consultations with Iraqis.
Robert Blackwill, the U.S. diplomat who oversees Iraq strategy at the National Security Council, has been in Iraq and will remain there after Brahimi returns.
Security Council members want to wait to hear from Brahimi before acting on a new resolution.
Bush said earlier this week at a news conference that he would like to get a new U.N. resolution “that will help other nations to decide to participate” in Iraq. The United States has about 130,000 troops in Iraq, followed by Britain’s 12,000.
Powell first raised the idea of a new U.N. resolution last week, saying it would help the Iraqi transitional government, promote reconstruction, encourage other nations to get involved and structure a role for the United Nations.
‘Very little time’ to get resolution
But observers warned that time was short.
“How does the new Iraqi government on July 1 ask for a foreign troop presence to support it, when Spanish troops are pulling out?” said Robin Niblett, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s critical to get this U.N. resolution in the very little time” that remains, he said.
Likewise, NATO is reluctant to contribute forces to help stabilize Iraq without a U.N. resolution, said Charles Kupchan, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University.
Without it, “NATO won’t touch Iraq with a 10-foot pole,” Kupchan said.
Bush and Blair also discussed peace efforts in the Middle East, backing support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza. But Bush appeared to back away from his opposition to allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.
Also on the agenda for their meeting Friday was a U.N. plan to reunify Cyprus. In parallel referendums April 24 in the Greek and Turkish parts of the Mediterranean island, voters will be asked whether to accept the U.N. blueprint. Neither Bush nor Blair commented on the plan.