- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

The United States and its allies in Iraq said yesterday they will pull their forces out of the country after the end of the occupation on June 30 if the interim government asks them to do so, but they expressed confidence that will not happen.

“Were this interim government to say to us, ‘We really think we can handle this on our own and it will be better if you were to leave,’ we will leave,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters after meeting with the foreign ministers of the world’s seven leading industrial nations and Russia.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw asked to take the floor after Mr. Powell spoke.

“On the 30th of June,” he said, “sovereignty transfers to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government, and were they to ask us to leave, we will leave.”

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini joined in, saying: “Italy, too, does not intend to remain at all against the wishes of a government, which is a transitory government.”

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said members of her country’s Self-Defense Forces, who are not engaged in military operations, “would go back to Japan if requested.”

But Mr. Powell and his colleagues said such a scenario is not realistic.

“I have no doubt that the interim Iraqi government will welcome the continued presence and operation of coalition military forces,” he said.

In Baghdad yesterday, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer told a delegation from Iraq’s Diyala province that American forces would not stay where they were unwelcome.

“If the provisional government asks us to leave, we will leave,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying. “I don’t think that will happen, but obviously we don’t stay in countries where we’re not welcome.”

The possible withdrawal of coalition troops — even as a hypothetical option — has been a matter of heated debate and a source of confusion in the Bush administration, which does not envision leaving Iraq at least for several years.

In testimony before the House International Relations Committee on Thursday, Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, seemed to suggest that the U.S. forces would quit if asked by the new government but later said they would not.

Mr. Powell’s strong statement yesterday signaled that most serious candidates for the interim government considered by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi are inclined to allow the multinational force to remain in the country.

Mr. Brahimi, currently in Iraq, is expected to present a list of nominees in about 10 days. The Bush administration, which sent Robert Blackwill, a senior National Security Council officials in charge of Iraq policy, to consult with Mr. Brahimi on a daily basis, has said it will accept the envoy’s recommendations.

The status of the U.S.-led forces in Iraq between June 30 and elections in late January emerged as the main point of friction between Washington and U.N. Security Council members that opposed the war last year, such as France and Russia.

Mr. Powell insisted that United Nations Resolution 1511, passed by the council after Saddam Hussein was ousted, and the administrative law adopted by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council give sufficient authority to the occupation powers to remain in charge of security until the elections.

“It’s really when the National Assembly is formed in January 2005, and it puts in place another government — a transitional government — replacing the interim government, at that point we would expect that that transitional government would want to discuss with the multinational force leaders issues such as [a Status of Forces Agreement],” Mr. Powell said.

But Paris and Moscow demanded that the post-June 30 interim government have a say in the country’s security.

“We have to make sure also that they have some kind of authority over the Iraqi forces during a specific period that runs from July this year to January next year,” said French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier.

Both France and Russia are veto-holding members of the Security Council, where the United States is negotiating a resolution that would endorse the new government and the scope of its sovereignty.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said a resolution would help to attract other nations’ troops to Iraq.

“A lot of us are reasonably convinced that if we can get another U.N. Security Council resolution, which we believe we can, that it would assist in getting maybe one or two handfuls of countries to add troops that have thus far not felt they could do so,” Mr. Rumsfeld told American servicemen and women in Baghdad during a surprise visit Thursday.

He later revised his estimate to “three handfuls of nations that have capabilities to bring forces in.” He added that 33 countries currently have troops in Iraq.

But the French and Russian foreign ministers reiterated yesterday that their troops will not be sent to Iraq under any circumstances.

“There will be no French troops in Iraq — not tomorrow, nor later,” Mr. Barnier said.

The ministers of the seven leading industrial countries — the United States, Britain, Japan, France, Germany, Italy and Canada — and Russia, together known as the Group of Eight, met ahead of the annual summit of their heads of state next month in Sea Island, Ga.

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