PM: We'll give Iraq back to the Iraqis as quickly as we can

The Government of Iraq will be handed over to the Iraqi people as soon as possible after the war, under a three-stage plan to restore democracy to the country, Tony Blair promised yesterday.

Britain is acting as the go-between in an attempt to reach a consensus between the United States and Europe over how post-conflict Iraq should be run. Although Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, is sceptical about involving the United Nations, the Prime Minister has allied himself with Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, who is sympathetic to the UN playing a key role. Mr Blair hopes that he persuaded President George Bush to allow it during their talks at Camp David last week.

In another rift with Mr Rumsfeld, Mr Blair and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, pointedly refused to endorse his threat to extend military action to Iran and Syria. Mr Straw said that Britain would have "nothing whatever" to do with it.

Stage one of the emerging blueprint for Iraq would be an administration headed by Jay Garner, a retired American lieutenant-general who runs the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Six British officials have been attached to this body in Kuwait and Washington.

General Garner would work closely with a "special commissioner" to be appointed by the United Nations and with outside experts and administrators. US and UK forces would ensure law and order, in addition to securing Iraq's borders. Britain appears to have blocked plans by the Pentagon for 23 American "overlords" to run Iraq's ministries.

Stage two, which would follow several months later, would be an "interim Iraqi authority". The Iraqi people would be strongly represented, as would the United Nations and possibly countries such as France and Germany. A conference of Iraqis would be called to ensure that the authority was "broadly representative" before elections were held.

Stage three would involve elections to create a fully-fledged Iraqi government. Mr Blair told MPs at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday: "As soon as possible, Iraq should not be run either by the coalition or by the United Nations; it should be run by Iraqis."

He admitted there will be difficulties over the transition to the Iraqi interim authority, and there were differences over how to achieve that goal, but he said he believed the international community would reach agreement.

Mr Blair said: "If people can see that the Iraqi people are given freedom, given the ability to have a proper representative government, given protection on human rights, are able to enjoy their prosperity, I believe that across the Arab and Muslim world the message will be positive."

The Prime Minister said that there were "issues" over the UN's credibility but "for all its faults most people still recognise the UN as the right forum for legitimacy in the international community". Mr Blair was challenged by Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, over whether President Bush wanted the post-conflict administration to be "UN-led or American-led".

The Prime Minister replied: "In the immediate aftermath of the conflict of course the coalition forces will be there. There is no way that they are suddenly going to disappear from the ground. The UN has made it quite clear itself it doesn't want to lead an Iraqi government. What it wants is the ability to work with us in partnership to make sure we assemble the broadest possible representation from within Iraq itself."

Mike O'Brien, the Foreign Office Minister, told BBC2's Newsnight programme last night that although the US would dominate the arrangements, the UN would have a key role. He agreed that 90 days was one timescale envisaged for the US/UN administration but made clear that it could be much longer before free elections could be held.

Diplomatic manoeuvring over the administration of post-war Iraq is continuing apace. Mr Straw met Joschka Fischer, his German counterpart, in Berlin last night and will meet the foreign ministers of France and Russia in Brussels today.

Mr Blair hopes to secure a UN resolution to approve the blueprint for post-war Iraq. One aide said: "He is trying to bring Europe and America together. He doesn't want to be in one camp or the other but to build bridges between them."

The Prime Minister told the Commons that the killing of eight women and children at a US checkpoint at Karbala was "a terrible tragedy" but added that soldiers at checkpoints were placed in "a very difficult situation". He said a "full inquiry" was under way but pointed out that there were also "tragedies we do not see" being perpetrated by Iraqi forces.

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