Bush, Blair stand by June 30 deadline

Leaders support plan for Iraqi government that U.N. envoy proposed

April 17, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged anew yesterday to turn over political power to Iraqis on June 30 and embraced an outline for a caretaker government proposed by a special United Nations envoy.

After a particularly violent two weeks in Iraq, including kidnappings and increasing casualties, the two close allies pointed to the preparations for sovereign Iraqi rule as a sign of forward movement in Iraq.

"The prime minister and I have made our choice. Iraq will be free, Iraq will be independent, Iraq will be a peaceful nation, and we will not waver in the face of fear and intimidation," Bush said at a joint news conference in the White House Rose Garden.

"No citizen of America or Britain would want the government of their nation in hands of others, and neither do the Iraqis. And this is why the June 30 date for the transfer of sovereignty will be kept," Bush said.

The handover date had been clouded by uncertainty as a result of insurgencies by Sunni and Shiite Muslim forces, a rash of kidnappings of Americans, Europeans and Asians, and the absence of a credible government prepared to receive power.

Just hours after Bush and Blair spoke, U.S. military officials said they were studying a videotape that showed a man who identified himself as an American soldier surrounded by masked gunmen. The tape was aired by the Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera, followed by CNN.

Yesterday's appearance by Bush and Blair marked an effort by both governments to submerge any differences in a display of unity and resolve.

Questioned on the Middle East, Blair joined Bush in giving strong backing to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, once again distancing Britain from its European partners and the Arab world to back the president.

Differences

Blair avoided mentioning British disagreement with Bush over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. On Wednesday, Bush supported Israel's goal of retaining some of the larger settlements in any peace deal with the Palestinians, generating a furor in the Arab world and opposition from European countries.

Britain, together with much of the world, views the settlements as violations of international law. Blair was also silent on Bush's rejection of Palestinian refugees' claim that they have a "right of return" to Israel.

Instead, Blair said the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank is an opportunity to advance the peace process and build a Palestinian state and, like Bush, stressed that all issues would ultimately have to be settled in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Let's not look this particular opportunity in the eye and then turn away," Blair said.

The outline put forward Wednesday by special U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi helps fill a major gap in the near-term outlook for Iraq, and had been warmly greeted by top U.S. and British officials before yesterday's endorsement by Bush and Blair.

Brahimi has proposed replacing the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council with a caretaker government comprising a president, two vice presidents and a prime minister and including "men and women known for their honesty, integrity and competence." Its leaders would be chosen by the U.N. after consultations with the United States, the Governing Council and other Iraqis.

The interim government would hold power until an elected power structure takes shape next year. Elections for a national assembly are supposed to be held by the end of January 2005.

`Broadly acceptable'

Bush, at his news conference with Blair, said Brahimi had "identified a way forward to establishing an interim government that is broadly acceptable to the Iraqi people. "

Bush's embrace of Brahimi's proposal ignored protests from some members of the U.S.-appointed council, who will not necessarily be picked for the new government under Brahimi's plan.

Aides to Governing Council member Ahmad Chalaby, a favorite of civilian policymakers in the Pentagon, have opposed Brahimi's ideas and expressed open distrust of the envoy.

In recent weeks, Bush administration officials have acceded to having the U.N. play an increasingly prominent role in Iraq's transition, despite having resisted entreaties from Blair and other Europeans to do so a year ago.

Blair said yesterday, "The U.N. will have a central role, as now, in developing the program and machinery for political transition to full Iraqi democracy."

While welcoming the United Nations, the United States has stepped up its diplomatic efforts to get other nations to contribute forces to help stabilize Iraq after June 30. In New York yesterday, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, John Negroponte, made an appeal for troops to protect officials of the world body in Iraq so they can operate there in greater numbers.

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