Washington, 28 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In a confirmation hearing in Washington yesterday, members of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee questioned John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and President George W. Bush's nominee to be his new ambassador to Iraq.
The question of Iraqi sovereignty ahead of the scheduled 30 June handover of power was central to the discussions. On 25 April, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the still-undefined government set to take power in Iraq will have to "give up" some of its sovereignty to allow the U.S. military to provide security in the country. A U.S. State Department official last week used the term "limited sovereignty."
For his part, Negroponte told the senators that the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council now has what he called "restricted" sovereignty, and that those restrictions will be removed when its successor takes over after 30 June.
One of the senators on the committee, Republican Chuck Hagel, pressed Negroponte about the extent of that sovereignty. Specifically, Hagel wanted to know how much influence Iraq's new interim government might have in dealing with a situation like the one in and around Al-Fallujah, where U.S. forces have been fighting intermittently with insurgents for the past three weeks.
Negroponte said that, even now, according to a UN resolution, the Iraqi Governing Council is "the embodiment of sovereignty" -- but that this sovereignty is restricted. After 30 June, however, the exercise of sovereignty will be restored to the interim government, whose members will be chosen with the help of the United Nations.
But Negroponte, echoing Powell's recent comments, added: "There happens to be an area where [Iraqis] are not yet in a position to fully exercise their powers, and that is in the security area. But I don't want to use any kind of terminology that would in any way belittle the responsibilities that are going to be taken over by the newly appointed, sovereign government of Iraq."
"So why would they possibly come along and help? You at the United Nations understand better than anybody: They can't afford a civil war [in Iraq] either." -- Sen. Biden
As for dealing with situations like the fighting in Al-Fallujah, Negroponte said, it is still too early for the new Iraqi government to take a leading role.
The chairman of the Senate committee, Republican Richard Lugar, said that no matter how much sovereignty Iraq's interim government exercises, it is important that Negroponte be confirmed quickly so that his embassy can operate smoothly on 1 July. "We cannot simply turn on the lights at the [U.S.] Embassy on 30 June and expect everything to go well," he said. "We must be rehearsing with Iraqi authorities and our coalition partners how decision-making and administrative power will be distributed and exercised. It is critical, therefore, that Ambassador Negroponte and his team be in place at the earliest possible moment."
Negroponte said that it is equally important that the makeup of Iraq's interim government be known soon so that it, too, can be ready when sovereignty is handed over. "The goal is to encourage and do everything we can to ensure that that government is established -- probably identified earlier -- much earlier than 1 July -- perhaps at the beginning of June, for example, so that it can begin to ready itself to take over its responsibilities on 1 July," he said.
Negroponte said it will be equally critical for other countries, under UN auspices, to send large military contingents to help the United States restore and maintain order. He said that as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, he is working hard to get the Security Council to authorize such a force.
Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, the vice chairman of the committee, agreed. He noted that many Bush critics have asked why nations that opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq would want to help Americans keep order there. In fact, Biden said, stability in the Middle East is in everyone's interest. "Why would anybody want to help? They didn't like what we did. They didn't like the way we did it. They don't like the way we're doing it now," he said. "So why would they possibly come along and help? You at the United Nations understand better than anybody: They can't afford a civil war [in Iraq] either."
Under the U.S. Constitution, the Senate must approve, or reject, a president's ambassadorial nominees. Negroponte's nomination is expected to be approved. But while the hearing was mostly cordial, there were moments of discord.
For example, Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd said that, as ambassador, Negroponte must be honest with the American people about the situation in Iraq. Dodd referred to a time two decades ago when Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras. The administration of President Ronald Reagan was then supporting the rebels opposing the Marxist government of another Central American country, Nicaragua.
"It is well known that Ambassador Negroponte and I had some differences many years ago when he was ambassador in the 1980s in Honduras. Those differences stemmed largely from a lack of candor about what the U.S. was and wasn't doing in Central America in the conflict at that time. And although I intend to support -- and strongly support -- this nomination when it comes to a vote in this committee, and later on the Senate floor, I want to make one point especially clear: That same issue -- candor -- in my view, is going to be critical with respect to continued support for U.S. policies in Iraq," Dodd said.
Dodd told Negroponte that it will be his responsibility to notify President Bush and the American people if the United States is taking the wrong direction in Iraq so that the course can be corrected quickly. Otherwise, the senator said, his mission will be a failure.