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U.S.: Top Official Reiterates That UN 'Can't Be In Charge' In Postwar Iraq

As the war in Iraq appears to be winding down, Washington's attention is increasingly shifting toward postwar reconstruction. Yesterday, a senior Pentagon official reiterated the U.S. position that the U.S.-British coalition -- not the United Nations -- should have the lead role in setting up an interim governing entity in Iraq.

Washington, 11 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. Defense Department official says the role of the United Nations in postwar Iraq will be determined by the United States and its coalition allies, in concert with the Iraqi people themselves.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz made the comments yesterday in testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing on postwar Iraq and the expansion of NATO.

Britain, the United States' chief ally in the Iraq war, has argued for a central UN role in postwar Iraq as a gesture to countries like France, Germany, and Russia, who opposed the U.S.-British policies that led to the conflict. Washington has made it clear that it wants the UN role to be limited largely to humanitarian aid.

Wolfowitz restated that position yesterday: "We welcome support from UN agencies and from nongovernmental organizations in providing immediate humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people. The larger role of the UN will be determined in coordination with the Iraqi people themselves, with other members of the coalition, with the [UN] secretary-general, and other members of the United Nations."

Wolfowitz also was emphatic that he believes the use of Iraq's oil wealth and all other resources should be the province of its people. He said Iraq has many professionals and civil servants, and that there is no reason why they should not be employed quickly to establish a new, democratically elected government to manage the country's wealth.

The U.S. approach to postwar Iraq was challenged by one senator, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Byrd has been outspoken in his opposition to the war and the policies of U.S. President George W. Bush that led to it. Byrd asked Wolfowitz, "Why is the United States being so coy with respect to UN entreaties for a substantial role in rehabilitating Iraq beyond just providing food and medicine?"

Wolfowitz replied that the U.S. government is discussing with the UN what its role will be. Wolfowitz said Washington is also asking for help from other countries, and that it expects such help will be generous.

But he was specific in why the United States does not envision a UN role in helping Iraq set up a new government: "I don't think we want to see a situation like we do in Bosnia, for example, where eight years after the Dayton agreement, the UN is still running Bosnia. We want to see a situation where power and responsibility is transferred as quickly as possible to the Iraqis themselves."

Wolfowitz said the UN "can't be the managing partner. It can't be in charge." He said the U.S. wants to avoid a situation in which Iraq might become what he called a "permanent ward of the international community."

Byrd also asked Wolfowitz about statements concerning Syria made by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld has at least twice accused Syria of being "unhelpful" by supplying military equipment -- including night-vision goggles -- to Iraq, even after the war began.

Wolfowitz replied that Syria has been "behaving badly," as he put it. He said the United States should reconsider its policy toward any country that behaves that way. According to Wolfowitz, calling attention to Syria's actions may be enough to persuade the government in Damascus to change its conduct. He stressed that there is no plan that he knows of to take military action against Syria.

Wolfowitz also was asked about the meeting in Moscow today of Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and French President Jacques Chirac. All three have strongly opposed the U.S.-British policy on Iraq. The three leaders are expected to discuss their roles in postwar Iraq.

Iraq is believed to owe billions of dollars to foreign countries, including Russia, Germany, and France. Wolfowitz suggested the three governments could ease that financial burden for the post-Saddam Hussein government. "I hope, for example, they'll think about the very large debts that come from money that was lent to the dictator [Saddam Hussein] to buy weapons and to build palaces and to build instruments of repression. I think they ought to consider whether it might not be appropriate to forgive some or all of that debt so that the new Iraqi government isn't burdened with it," Wolfowitz said.

The hearing was held at a time when the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq appears to be concluding its war to drive Hussein's regime from power. As a result, little attention was paid to the other topic of the hearing -- NATO expansion.

However, Wolfowitz was asked some questions about NATO, including whether he thought it would advisable for the alliance to have a third round of expansion. He replied that the United States has no objection to that idea.

Wolfowitz said the alliance's mission has shifted because there is no longer a Soviet bloc to threaten Europe and America. Now, he said, Russia is a friend.

"When Poland and the Czech Republic and Hungary were brought into NATO, some people feared -- and I think not without some reason -- that this would be building a wall down the center of Europe that would be excluding Russia. I think experience has demonstrated that instead of building a wall, we've built a bridge across Europe, a bridge on which Russia has been able to move closer to Europe, both in security terms, but also in political terms," Wolfowitz said.

In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined the alliance. Seven more states have since been invited to join. They are Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.