Feverish negotiations overcome a decade of antagonism to give a nation hope for the future

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When President Bush stood on the steps of the Elysée and shook hands with President Jacques Chirac - the most bitter critic of the Iraq war - at the weekend, he knew he was heading into a difficult meeting before sitting down to a veal dinner.

When President Bush stood on the steps of the Elysée and shook hands with President Jacques Chirac - the most bitter critic of the Iraq war - at the weekend, he knew he was heading into a difficult meeting before sitting down to a veal dinner.

The French were leading the charge at the UN Security Council in objecting to the draft US-British resolution that laid down a blueprint for the future of Iraq following the handover to a "sovereign" Iraqi government.

Initial hopes of a vote by the D-Day anniversary had faded, and Mr Bush was now pinning his hopes on adoption before he hosted the G8 summit this week.

Although the French had made it clear that they were not threatening a veto - as they had in February last year, forcing Britain and the US to invade Iraq without UN authorisation - an abstention would have been almost as damaging. Desperate for international legitimacy, the Bush and Blair gov- ernments had made it clear that they had taken pains to courtcouncil members to show the world there was a global consensus on the way forward.

But when Mr Bush and Mr Chirac posed - without eye contact - for their icy handshake on the Elysée steps on Saturday, the French were still voicing objections to the amended proposals circulated the previous evening. The revision was the third of the draft resolution in less than two weeks, and negotiations were at a critical stage, following the appointment of the interim Iraqi government.

But crucially, the changes did not address security arrangements and the extent of the interim Iraqi government's control over foreign forces, the issue that had bedevilled the negotiations from the start.

So at their first face to face meeting in nine months, President Chirac repeated to the US President the fundamental French concern: That the resolution must restore complete Iraqi sovereignty to have any chance of recovering stability.

The Iraqi people had to have the sense that they were regaining independence, he said, according to French officials.

Mr Bush did not arrive in Paris empty-handed. Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, brought with him a letter saying that the commander of the future multinational force "will work in partnership with the sovereign Government of Iraq in helping to provide security while recognising and respecting its sovereignty". It was a gesture, but it was not enough. In particular, the letters did not spell out what would happen if Iraqi leaders opposed a major military operation as they did during the US assault on Fallujah.

After their meeting, Mr Chirac was still withholding approval. The French had been wary from the start about the exchange of letters which would accompany the resolution, and wanted more security details expressed in the resolution itself - thereby legally committing the 15-member council to the measures and not just the British, American and Iraqi governments.

Another two days of feverish consultation between New York, Washington, Paris, London and Baghdad were needed to reach yesterday's happy ending.

The British and Americans had expected a long and difficult negotiation with the French, after their last diplomatic disaster at the council. To avoid that, they discussed the idea of the resolution with council members three weeks before submitting the first text.

The plan was for the UN formally to declare the end of the military occupation, bless the interim Iraqi government, and lay down a timetable that would lead to democratic elections.

But it was clear from the first draft that there was going to be trouble from France, working with the other anti-war countries on the council, Russia and Germany. Initial reaction to the first draft, which was submitted on 23 May, was cool.

A senior European diplomat on the council said that Iraqis would never accept new arrangements that looked like another version of the occupation. There were mutterings about not giving a "blank cheque" to the Americans.

Sovereigntyemerged as the key, with objections focusing on the Iraqis' control of oil revenues, and the relationship between the future "multinational force" and the Iraqi government. The British and American hopes of getting away with an exchange of letters with the Iraqi government were dashed, as the critics on the council began to insist that the security arrangements should be in the resolution itself.

But unlike the belligerent exchanges that led to the collapse of the second resolution that would have authorised the war last year, the talks have been more diplomatic.

Michel Barnier, the French Foreign Minister, said yesterday that "for the first time" regarding Iraq there had been a "real dialogue" between France and the US. That is saying something for two countries that have been at daggers drawn on Iraq since the mid-1990s.

Tony Blair's talks in Paris on 9 May were a key part of the diplomatic ballet, as the US and Britain demonstrated that they were in listening mode even before submitting the text. British diplomats said yesterday that there had been "a real process, and real discussion".

The draft resolution was revised a first time on 1 June. By then, only the prime minister of the interim government had been named and council members wanted to see who was in the line-up before committing themselves to endorsing the caretaker cabinet. They were also waiting to see the letters to the council president from Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister, and Mr Powell.

The extra changes to the draft were made on 4 June. But following Mr Bush's meeting with President Chirac, the Americans knew what they had to do to ensure a unanimous vote. "I hope that we will manage within a few days to [agree] a resolution which meets what is, in our eyes, essential, which is to give the Iraqis the feeling that they have regained their sovereignty and the mastery of their destiny," Mr Chirac said after meeting Mr Bush.

On Monday, as the negotiations went to their final stage, the text went through two amendments. The clincher was the final concession to France in which the language from Mr Powell's letter found its way into the resolution. The text that was adopted last night speaks of a "security partnership" between the interim government and the US-led forces.

"There were two moments: One the meeting between Bush and Chirac, and the other on Monday, when the final amendments happened," a French diplomat said last night.

UN RESOLUTIONS ON IRAQ

In the past year, the Security Council has passed five separate resolutions on Iraq - from authorising the transfer of temporary sovereignty to the US and Britain, to the current resolution establishing an interim Iraqi government.

Resolution 1483, passed on 22 May 2003. Lifted non-military sanctions against Iraq and recognised the US and Britain as occupying powers. Called on the US and Britain to try to improve security and stability. Created position of UN Special Representative.

Resolution 1490, passed on 3 July 2003. Disbanded the UN Iraq-Kuwait observer mission and removed the demilitarised zone between Iraq and Kuwait.

Resolution 1500, passed on 14 August 2003. Established the UN assistance mission for Iraq and welcomed the creation of Iraqi Governing Council.

Resolution 1511, passed on 16 October 2003. Mandated UN to "strengthen role in Iraq", invited Governing Council to draw up timetable for elections and constitution.

Resolution 1518, passed on 24 November 2003. Established a committee to identify resources which should be transferred to the development fund for Iraq.

On 23 May this year, the US and UK circulated a draft of a resolution on transfer of power.

Andrew Buncombe

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