Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, joined by the foreign ministers of nations making key contributions of military forces in Iraq, emphatically said yesterday that if the incoming Iraqi interim government ordered the departure of foreign troops after July 1, they would pack up without protest.
"We would leave," Powell said, noting that he was "not ducking the hypothetical, which I usually do," to avoid confusion on the extent of the new government's authority.
His statement, which was echoed by the foreign ministers of Britain, Italy and Japan, and by the U.S. administrator in Iraq, came one day after conflicting testimony on Capitol Hill by administration officials on the issue. Testifying before the House International Relations Committee on Thursday, Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman appeared to say that the interim government could order the departure of foreign troops, only to be contradicted by Lt. Gen. Walter Sharp, sitting at his side, who asserted that only an elected government could do so. Iraqi elections are scheduled for January.
U.S. officials emphasized that they could not imagine the new government requesting the departure of almost 170,000 troops when the security situation in the country is so dire. But the new government's ability to assert its authority after the occupation authority dissolves on June 30 has been a central question in the international consultations over the shape of the incoming government, with the United States under pressure to transfer as much political power as possible to the Iraqi people.
"The Iraqi government has to be in a position to govern, and that's why I mean that it has to be a break with the past, " French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said at a news conference in Washington after a preparatory meeting for next month's Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga.
Barnier had been harshly critical of U.S. actions in Iraq before he arrived in Washington, seeming to equate U.S. and Israeli actions in an interview with Le Monde published on Thursday. "What strikes me is the spiral of horror, of blood, of inhumanity that one is seeing on all fronts, from Fallujah to Gaza and in the terrible images of the assassination of the unfortunate American hostage," he told the newspaper. "It all gives the impression of a total loss of direction."
French, Russian and Italian officials pressed yesterday for the new government to be given the authority to halt military actions by U.S. forces. Powell rejected that, saying the forces will remain under the command of an American who "has to be free to take whatever decisions he believes are appropriate to accomplish his mission."
Powell said the Bush administration will set up "political consultative processes" that will keep the interim government informed about military plans and actions. He said the "various liaison organizations and cells" will also give the Americans "full insight into any sensitivities that might exist within the Iraqi interim government concerning our military operations."
But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters that an "effective transfer of power" would allow the Iraqis to halt potential military attacks.
"Effective transfer of power means that Iraqi forces should have the right and the power to have a say in decisions about their territory," Frattini said. "If we imagine a unilateral decision by coalition forces after June 30, without listening to the Iraqi people or without giving them the power to say no, there won't be a transfer of power. And, in fact, what we want is that there is such power for the Iraqi people."
The open dispute between representatives of the leading industrialized nations over how to proceed in Iraq was evident despite a plea from President Bush for cooperation.
The foreign ministers met briefly with the president. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush and the ministers talked about the "mission they're working to accomplish in Iraq and about the importance of putting aside past differences and all of us working together."
The French, Russian and Canadian representatives made it clear that they will not supply troops for Iraq but that they are willing to help with reconstruction.
"I have said this already, and I'm saying once again, that there will be no French troops -- not here, not now, not tomorrow," Barnier said.
The foreign ministers' discussions yesterday also focused on narrowing differences over the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East. European and Arab officials have resisted what they regard as a heavy-handed attempt by the administration to prod autocratic governments in the region to yield political power.
Officials said yesterday that there is an emerging consensus to support a "Middle East forum" that would bring together governments, businesses and nongovernmental groups to discuss reform goals. "This is an idea that is really going forward rather rapidly," a European official said, adding that there is still concern over the tone of the document the Americans want the G-8 to adopt at the summit.
The administration appeared to be inching toward the European position that progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict would assist efforts to promote Arab political reforms.