GENEVA - Foreign ministers of the world's five most powerful countries signaled on Saturday they were seriously divided over how fast the United States should hand power to local politicians in occupied Iraq.
There appeared to be virtually no chance of a breakthrough emerging from a U.N.-called meeting in Geneva on the political future of the war-torn country, though diplomats said the five ministers may at least agree on a way forward.
"This is an informal meeting so the formal discussions will continue in New York," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters as he went into the session, scheduled to last just 75 minutes.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (L) talks to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov prior to a meeting on Iraq at the Palais des Nations in Geneva September 13, 2003. Foreign ministers of the world's five most powerful countries signaled they were seriously divided over how fast the United States should hand power to local politicians in occupied Iraq. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
"The discussion so far at the lunch hosted by Secretary General Kofi Annan has been very cordial, very constructive."
Washington, which has de facto control in Baghdad as the main occupying power, needs cash and troops from other nations but says it does not believe Iraqis can take power as quickly as European governments -- especially France -- are proposing.
On the ground, opposition to the U.S. presence is growing, underlined on Saturday in Falluja, west of Baghdad, where Iraqis chanting "America is the enemy of God" began burying 10 police and security guards shot mistakenly by U.S. troops.
Possibly adding to U.S. discomfiture, a leading member of the U.S-appointed Governing Council in Baghdad said he and his 24 colleagues were anxious for a quick transfer of authority to them from the U.S. civilian authorities in the country.
"We are anxious to expedite the whole process, the political process, so that we can have a constitution and elections as soon as possible," Adnan Pachachi told Reuters.
The dispute between the Big Five powers -- the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- is a replay at lower intensity of transatlantic wrangling earlier this year over U.N. approval for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March.
Joining the U.S. and France in Geneva for the Saturday talks were the foreign ministers of Britain -- which backs the U.S. stance -- Russia and China, which are taking a low-key position.
U.N. ROLE NEEDED
With U.S.-led forces in Iraq taking casualties almost every day and the cost of occupation mounting, Washington sees a new U.N. resolution it has drafted as a way to coax other countries to pitch in with cash and troops.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin says Paris wants a text that provides for handing executive powers over to Iraqis, possibly within a month, and also provides for elections by next spring.
The United States says the French proposal is a recipe for chaos in Iraq, where the governing council has little clout.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the proposal was "totally unrealistic" and the United States would reject it.
"I cannot anticipate us agreeing to any language that would buy into what Minister de Villepin has been saying," he told reporters on his way to Geneva late on Friday.
A State Department official said Powell and Villepin met briefly after the lunch. The official denied rumors that there had been a heated exchange between the two men.
Franco-German amendments to the draft would push U.S. occupation forces under diplomat Paul Bremer to the sidelines.
But Powell said Americans would have to stay in charge until a new Iraqi army and police force take shape. "We are not going to second that (U.S.) force to anyone else," he said.
The Security Council's talks on Iraq earlier this year ended in acrimony when the United States walked away, saying it could act alone after France threatened to veto a war resolution.
France, Germany and Russia -- which all opposed the invasion -- are now seeking to dilute the U.S. role in Iraq, in part to prevent Washington reaping any long-term political and economic benefit from the invasion.
Straw sought to stress that "whatever the disagreements about the rightness or otherwise" of the Iraq war, the international community was now united in recognizing its responsibility to both the Iraqis and the United Nations.
Additional reporting by Tom Armitage
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd