United States officials have promised to give the United Nations a stronger say in Iraq's elections and its transition to democracy from the one-party rule of Saddam Hussein, an American official said.
The word came as Secretary of State Colin Powell set a six-month timeline for drafting a constitution and electing political leaders in Iraq. He emphasized it was not a deadline with dire consequences.
In Baghdad, a member of the interim Iraqi cabinet on Saturday welcomed the proposed U.S. timetable as a sign that Washington understands the need to return sovereignty to the Iraqi people.
"It is step in the right direction," said Mofeed al-Jazaaeri, the minister of culture. "It is a sign that the process of transforming the power and authority to Iraqis is moving in the right direction."
Al-Jazaaeri, whose communist party is represented in the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council, said he believed six months "is enough to prepare a draft constitution" if all political groups work together.
Separately, the president of Iraq's Governing Council said in an interview published Saturday that U.S.-led occupation troops should leave Iraq and be replaced by an international force charged with protecting the country.
Ahmad Chalabi also told the London-based Arabic daily, Al-Hayat, that a United Nations resolution to send peacekeepers to Iraq would signal the end to his country's U.S.-led occupation.
"We do not want an occupation force in Iraq" Chalabi told Al-Hayat. "But we want an international force to remain in order to protect Iraq from any external dangers, the same as happens in
several Arab countries."
Chalabi was apparently referring to various Gulf states, including Kuwait, where U.S. forces have been stationed since the 1991 Gulf War that drove Saddam Hussein's occupying forces from
Iraq's southern neighbor.
Chalabi, who has close ties with U.S. officials and was a prominent opponent-in-exile to Saddam's regime, said he wanted an "end (to) any foreign troop presence and end (to) the occupation of Iraq."
He also added that U.S. officials had told him privately that America wanted to withdraw its forces from Iraq as soon as 2004.
President Bush used his weekly radio address Saturday to press other nations to help in Iraq. "Our coalition is helping the Iraqi people to build a secure, hopeful and self-governing nation which will stand as an example of freedom to all the Middle East," he said. "All nations of goodwill should do their part, as well."
The New York Times reports in its Saturday editions that impatience is beginning to grow among Iraqi officials who feel they are ready for a greater role in running the country right now. The Times says they "chafe at the strictures of an American occupation, which, they say, has in some cases slowed reconstruction."
Meantime, more than 10,000 protesters demanding the pullout of coalition troops from Iraq marched in central London on Saturday, chanting "No More War" and "Bush and Blair have got to go" while thousands more in other countries raised their voices against the occupation of Iraq. In Greece, Cyprus, South Korea, Turkey and elsewhere, thousands more demonstrators took to the streets.
Syria, a Security Council member that opposed the U.S.-led war and occupation in Iraq, welcomed the tentative timeline set out by Powell, as did Britain and Spain.
"I think this is the first public sentence I hear which demonstrates American goodwill with regards to the U.S. presence in Iraq," Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said in an interview from New York with the Lebanese Al Hayat-LBC television station.
The United States is trying to secure a new U.N. resolution to persuade more countries to contribute troops and money to Iraq. France, Germany and several other Security Council nations are doubtful, saying they want Washington to relinquish power quickly and give the United Nations more control.
An American official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States has agreed to give the world body a bigger role in the elections and political transformation of Iraq.
"We've promised to turn that process over to the U.N. So I think you've seen the United States move quite a bit," the U.S. official said.
In his Tuesday speech before the General Assembly, President Bush spoke broadly about a need for global help and outlined a limited role for the United Nations in writing an Iraqi constitution, training civil servants and overseeing elections.
Powell met with ministers from the 14 other Security Council nations, and dozens of others concerned about the instability in Iraq - including two bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in a month. He returned to Washington late Friday to work on a revised resolution, which Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said Washington will present next week.
The U.S. official said the timeline suggested by Powell was a response to the French, but French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin refused to answer a question seeking his reaction.
Germany's stand, expressed repeatedly by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, remains that there should be a return to Iraqi sovereignty as soon as possible, but with a "realistic" timeline, Foreign Ministry spokesman Walter Lindner said in Berlin.
Britain endorsed Powell's statement.
"We are committed to elections during the course of next year, and hope this fits in with that," a Foreign Office spokesman in London said on condition of anonymity.
Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio also told The Associated Press she was encouraged.
"I think that we need a timetable," she said. "This would be a good sign for the Iraqi people and for the international public opinion - that the process is there, that the full exercise of sovereignty by the Iraqi people is on its way after so many decades of a brutal government."
Powell said the timeline was part of a plan outlined by the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, to give power back to the Iraqis.
"Six months seems to be a good timeline to put out there for the creation of this constitution, and also to give a sense of momentum and purpose to the effort of moving toward full restoration of authority over Iraq to the Iraqi people," Powell said after a high-level meeting concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"If it's possible to meet that goal of finishing the constitutional work in six months, then it is quite appropriate to consider that shortly thereafter the people would be able to ratify such a constitution and prepare for elections.
"Some people say it would be another six months for elections, but we really can't be precise about it."
Bremer told a Pentagon news conference that a preparatory committee named by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council will produce a report Tuesday detailing how to proceed with a constitutional convention.
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