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Big Five powers divided over Iraq future

Geneva, Sept. 13 (Reuters): The world’s five most powerful countries emerged divided today after four hours of debate on Iraq’s political future, but there was no replay of pre-war acrimony and they agreed to press on to find an agreement.

“Discussions today were not intended... to devise specific solutions,” UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said after the meeting of foreign ministers from Britain, China, France, Russia and the US in Geneva.

“They will contribute to building consensus towards the future of Iraq, including the definition of the UN role.”

With US-led forces in Iraq taking casualties almost every day and the cost of its occupation mounting, Washington sees a new UN resolution it has drafted as a way to coax other countries to pitch in with cash and troops. But it does not believe Iraqis can take power as quickly as European governments — especially France — are proposing. France, which has insisted on a timetable for the handover of executive powers to Iraqis, made it clear that it wanted to avoid another transatlantic bust-up.

Asked if Paris would use its veto to block Washington’s resolution, foreign minister Dominique de Villepin said: “We are here...to try and find solutions, not to create new problems.”

On the ground in Iraq, opposition to the US presence is growing. In Falluja, west of Baghdad, Iraqis chanted: “America is the enemy of God” today as they began burying 10 police and security guards shot mistakenly by US troops.

US President George W. Bush, pressing his case for help from abroad, urged allies yesterday to join the effort to build a stable post-war Iraq and said free nations could not be neutral in the “fight between civilisation and chaos”. A British official in Geneva said that after the wrangling earlier this year over UN approval for the US-led invasion of Iraq in March “we all knew where we were coming from”, and so there were no heated exchanges at today’s meeting.

Nevertheless, the standoff between the Big Five powers — the permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto powers — had echoes of the pre-war drama, with Britain backing the US stance and Russia and China taking a low-key position.

Villepin said ahead of the meeting that Paris wanted a UN resolution that hands executive powers over to Iraqis, possibly within a month, and provides for elections by next spring.

Washington says the French proposal is a recipe for chaos in Iraq, where the US-backed governing council has little clout.

Powell — who later left Geneva on the way to Kuwait and Iraq — said the French proposal was “totally unrealistic” and the US would reject it. “Of course, there are differences of opinion on certain aspects of our draft resolution,” Powell said.

“The important thing... is we spent our time today looking for points of convergence, and there are many,” Powell said. “And we have got a better understanding of our views which we can communicate to our permanent representatives back in New York for them to pursue the work next week.”

A British official quoted foreign secretary Jack Straw as saying that all five countries agreed on the need to transfer power to the Iraqi people and the need to ensure both security and good governance in the process.

“The issue is what are the steps and staging posts between where we are now and where we are going,” Straw was quoted as saying. Amendments put forward by France and Germany to the draft UN resolution would push US occupation forces under diplomat Paul Bremer to the sidelines.

Europe’s fiercest opponents of the war, they are now seeking to dilute the US role, in part to prevent Washington reaping any long-term political and economic benefit from the invasion.

However, Powell said on the way to Geneva that Americans would have to stay in charge until a new Iraqi army and police force take shape.

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