The leaders of France, Russia, and Germany are due to meet in St. Petersburg tomorrow for two days of talks. As the debate over Iraq's future shifts into high gear, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer looks at how the meeting could affect plans for postwar reconstruction and administration.
Moscow, 10 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With the world still registering yesterday's scenes of jubilation in Baghdad, the international community is heading toward another showdown over the future of the country.
As debate over Iraq's postwar reconstruction begins in earnest, leaders of the main antiwar lobby -- France, Russia, and Germany -- are due to meet in St. Petersburg starting tomorrow to discuss the issue. They are expected to emerge with a common stance to counter the U.S.-British position hammered out in a summit earlier this week.
French President Jacques Chirac says Russian President Vladimir Putin invited him and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder "to discuss all aspects of the situation" in Iraq. It is not yet clear whether there will be a three-way meeting.
Analysts in Moscow say the talks in the former Russian imperial capital could set the scene for another fight in the Security Council over Iraq's future. Chirac, Putin, and Schroeder want the United Nations to head a postwar interim administration in Iraq.
The United States is against a UN-run government. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin yesterday commented on the vague U.S.-British position that the UN should nonetheless play a "vital" role in Iraq. De Villepin was speaking at a news conference in Paris with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
"I believe we [France, Britain, and the United States] agree that the UN should have a full role in this [Iraq's reconstruction]. Reality, legitimacy, and the international community will tell whether this will be a 'central' role or a 'vital' one. We believe that the more the [international] community stands united, the greater is the chance of the process being a success."
Chirac today repeated his call for the UN to play a central role in Iraq.
France, Russia, and Germany opposed the war, advocating ongoing UN weapons inspections in Iraq instead of a UN Security Council resolution that would have authorized the use of force. Permanent Security Council members France and Russia threatened to use their veto power to block a resolution, which did not come to a vote.
Over the course of the conflict, the three countries have indicated they want the Security Council to make the final decisions over Iraq's future. Putin echoed that position last week saying the "course of recent events has shown that Russia had taken a correct position" on the issue of Iraq. "We are for strengthening the principle of international law and for deciding such problems through the United Nations."
The United States has meanwhile appointed retired U.S. General Jay Garner to lead a short-term military administration that would hand the country over to an interim government combining U.S. and British officials with local and formerly exiled Iraqis. The interim administration would later be replaced with a new, elected Iraqi government.
U.S. officials insist the UN is not able to play the central role. U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said at their summit in Northern Ireland this week that the UN's role would instead include helping with humanitarian aid and suggesting candidates for the interim administration.
Bush dismissed criticism of the position during the briefing.
"I hear a lot of talk about how we are going to impose this leader or that leader -- forget it. From day one we have said the Iraqi people are capable of running their own country. That's what we believe. The position of the United States of America is: The Iraqis are plenty capable of running Iraq and that is precisely what is going to happen."
Blair -- who is also said to have wanted the UN to play the chief role in Iraq -- has appealed to other countries not to engage in bickering that would block unity over the issue.
As part of an attempt to bridge the trans-Atlantic rift, Blair telephoned Chirac and Putin yesterday to update them on his talks with Bush.
But U.S. assurances that it will not act unilaterally have done nothing to prevent charges that it wants to impose "imperialist" control over Iraq. Among the fears is that Washington will exert too much control over reconstruction contracts and Iraq's lucrative oil industry.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that only the UN can bring legitimacy to a postwar administration in Iraq.
Viktor Kremenyuk is deputy director of Moscow's USA and Canada Institute. He says Chirac, Schroeder, and Putin will seek to establish this weekend whether their unity over Iraq will serve as the basis for ongoing solidarity over broader issues of security and economics.
"The most important goal should be to ascertain whether the overlap [of common interests] is temporary or whether there's something more serious behind it. Is it possible on the basis of this overlap to build long-term policy? Or can it simply be forgotten because it will see no further development?"
Andrei Zagorsky is deputy director of the Institute for Applied International Studies. He says France, Russia, and Germany may influence decisions on Iraq, but only if they work toward finding compromise.
"In my opinion, the meeting between Schroeder, Chirac, and Putin could have principal significance if the three states -- the three leaders -- agree on the key positions on which it would be possible to begin the process of moving together between Germany, Russia, and France, on one hand, and Great Britain and the U.S., on the other, on today's main question -- defining the UN's role in the future of Iraq's rule."
Zagorsky says the UN is in a poor position to run an interim administration, saying that with Anglo-American forces already on the ground, the international body is "too late" to clamor for the role.
"If the United States is ready to claim the responsibility, why not let it?" he asks.
But he adds that the UN should be given a key role in overseeing the country's political future by supporting political talks between Iraq's main political forces about an interim administration and helping form future Iraqi political and administrative institutions.
One of the main cards held by potential U.S. opponents in the Security Council is control over revenues generated by the UN's oil-for-food program in Iraq and held for postwar reconstruction.
One point of debate, on which Russia has loudly insisted, is that a Security Council agreement over Iraq's future should not legitimize the decision to go to war.
But France, Germany, and Russia have all sought to downplay their opposition in recent days. Chirac today hailed the collapse of the Iraqi regime.
Moscow is seeking to repair frayed relations with Washington, which has accused Russian arms dealers of supplying weapons to Iraqi forces.