Baghdad, Sept. 14 (Reuters): US secretary of state Colin Powell responded to international pressure for a speedy transfer of power in Iraq with a warning today that rushing the handover would result in failure.
“The worst thing that can happen is to push this process too quickly before the capacity for government is there and the basis for legitimacy is there, and see it fail,” he told a news conference during a visit to Baghdad.
Powell, the highest-ranking American to visit Iraq since the war that ousted Saddam Hussein in April, said Washington was as eager as anyone to pull out as fast as possible.
In Geneva over the weekend, the big international powers remained divided over Iraq’s political future. France has been the most vocal critic of Washington’s approach, arguing sovereignty could be handed over within a month.
“We don’t want to stay here a day longer (than needed). It is expensive. Our young soldiers would like to get home to their families,” Powell said.
“(But) we can’t just say ‘you are a government, fine, go, you have full authority’. It will be some time before any new government can take over responsibility for security.”
The second top US official to visit Baghdad in little over a week, Powell flew into Baghdad about an hour after a US soldier became the 72nd killed in action in Iraq since President George W. Bush declared major combat over on May 1.
A convoy from the 82nd Airborne Division hit a bomb planted on the road in the restive town of Falluja, about 50 km west of Baghdad, at 0400 GMT, the military said. Three more soldiers were wounded.
US commanders blame Iraq’s post-war violence on Saddam loyalists but they say foreign Islamic fighters have also been entering Iraq, often from Iran and Syria.
Intelligence estimates of the number of infiltrators range from several hundred to one or two thousand, Powell said.
“We will deal with them,” he vowed.
US troops come under fire on average 15 times a day and five car bombs have gone off in recent weeks.
Powell spent today meeting military commanders and Iraqi officials a day after inconclusive talks in Geneva aimed at building a consensus among major powers on how to rebuild Iraq.
Iraq’s foreign minister Hoshiyar Zebari said he hoped to see a sovereign, elected Iraqi government in place by mid to late 2004, but that would depend on security.
Powell sought to counter widespread suspicions among Iraqis that the US authorities were here for the long term. “We are not occupiers...we came as liberators,” he said.
“We have liberated a number of countries and we do not own one square foot of any of those countries — except where we bury our dead.”
Iraqis’ unease is echoed among the US electorate.
A Washington Post/ABC news poll today showed six out of 10 Americans disapproved of Bush’s request to Congress for an extra $87 billion to fund military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.