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Iraq: Europeans React Favorably To New Sovereignty Plans

European capitals are welcoming U.S. plans to speed the creation of a provisional Iraqi government, but their reactions differ. Germany is praising Washington's timetable for a handover of power to a new government in June, while France is urging the U.S. to move much faster. RFE/RL looks at the new debate in Europe over Iraq's progress toward sovereignty.

Prague, 18 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After months of deep divisions over Washington's actions in Iraq, there are growing signs that key European critics feel they and the U.S. are finally reaching common political ground.

Those signs come as Washington has announced that it will dramatically speed up the timetable for creating a sovereign Iraqi government. U.S. officials said over the weekend they will work for a handover of authority to a provisional government by 30 June. The new government's inauguration would mark the end of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which now holds ultimate power in the country.

The new timetable accelerates a transition to sovereignty that U.S. officials had previously described as taking up to two years. The revised plan got a warm welcome from Berlin yesterday. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, speaking in Washington, called it "an important step."

"I think this is a very important step forward, that we'll have now a timeline for a transition of authority and sovereignty to an Iraqi government," he said.

Germany has been a steady critic of Washington's Iraq policy since the U.S. and Britain opted to invade and occupy the country to end the weapons of mass destruction crisis. Berlin repeatedly called for the Iraq issue to be resolved within the framework of the UN.

France, equally critical of Washington over Iraq, also has welcomed the new U.S. decision to speed up the handover of authority. But Paris urged Washington to move even faster than the planned June timetable. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said in yesterday's "La Croix" newspaper: "My view is that it is too late. We need to move faster. This is an extremely urgent situation." The top French diplomat said one quick solution would be to combine Iraq's existing Governing Council, Constitutional Committee, and Council of Ministers with other "forces" to create a representative assembly that would elect a transitional government "by the end of the year."

Washington has yet to detail exactly how it plans to create a sovereign Iraqi government, but many observers believe the U.S. administration plans to loosely follow the model used in Afghanistan. That could include regional caucuses to elect representatives to a national convention, which in turn would elect, or endorse, a provisional government.

U.S. officials have said that U.S. and other foreign troops will remain in the country to ensure security. L. Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA, said over the weekend that "our presence here will change from an occupation to an invited presence...for some time to come."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is widely expected to discuss the U.S. plan for Iraq, among other topics, with European foreign ministers during a visit to Brussels today.

Gerd Nonneman, a Middle East expert at the University of Lancaster in Britain, says one of the reasons Germany and France welcome the shift in U.S. policy is that it finally offers a chance to begin healing the trans-Atlantic rifts caused by the Iraq crisis. "There was a very clear recognition in Germany, as well as in parts of the French establishment, that the damage done to relations with the U.S. were enormous and had to be somehow clawed back," Nonneman said. "There has been a lot of looking for ways out for quite some time already."

He says French calls to speed up the timetable may not represent firm demands for Washington to alter its policies. Instead, they may be intended to show that Paris is determined to maintain its independence from the U.S. on Iraq and other foreign-policy questions. "The French slight reservations [indicate] they are continuing to play this role of the independent actor in world politics, and they want to make clear that the world sees them as such," he said. "But at the same time, they are also being very careful not to try to cause further damage to relations with America."

Relations between Washington and the two key continental European powers -- already cool over the Iraqi weapons crisis -- became publicly frosty immediately following the start of the war last March. Powell said the French, in particular, would have to face consequences over what Washington saw as its lead role in opposing the U.S.-British action.

However, Nonneman says that now -- seven months later -- both the Germans and the French see Washington as recognizing their criticisms and adopting a new position that is more like their own. The two states, and many others, have argued that they cannot be expected to make substantial contributions of money or peacekeeping troops to Iraq's reconstruction as long as it is an occupied country under Anglo-American, rather than international, tutelage.

Powell appeared to recognize this concern over the weekend by coupling Washington's new timetable with a call to the UN to play a more active role in Iraq. Powell said, "I think it's time now with this new plan for the United Nations to determine whether or not circumstances will permit it to play a more active role inside the country."

The top U.S. diplomat did not specify whether the UN -- which has frequently said it wants to play a significant role in Iraq's political transition -- might now be asked to do just that in helping prepare for the handover of power. The UN was mostly limited to humanitarian work before it withdrew its international staff from much of the country following the deadly August attack on its Baghdad headquarters.