US handover must be much faster, France tells Powell

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The Independent Online

France found itself remaining the lone critic of the American timetable for returning political power to the Iraqis as the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, promised yesterday that security would be "under control" by his deadline for the handover in June.

In a visit to European Union foreign ministers, Mr Powell highlighted the importance of involving international organisations in the administration of country, and urged Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, to send a new special envoy to Baghdad. Sergio Vieira De Mello, the UN representative, died in a bomb blast earlier this year.

With US casualties mounting, the country has embarked on a belated effort to embrace the international community, as part of its first attempts to share the burden of dealing with the growing morass in Iraq.

France and Germany, which led the opposition to the war, have so far refused to offer troops or pledge large cash donations for reconstruction. But the new attempt to legitimise the administration in Iraq was enough for most EU member states, and Mr Powell was even given polite applause by the foreign ministers.

France remains the sole vocal critic. In an interview published on Monday Dominique de Villepin, the Foreign Minister, called for the handover of power to "go faster" and suggested a transfer of sovereignty by the end of the year. Yesterday he cancelled a press conference and left Brussels without speaking to the press, in an apparent effort to avoid a public rift.

Privately European officials are alarmed at the speed of the change of heart in Washington. Some fear that, in their rush to limit casualties, the Americans will abandon Iraq, leaving an unstable country behind.

"We had expected a mood of cut and run when the timetable for the US elections got close - but not this quickly," said one EU official.

Despite the new signs of consensus on Iraq, there was open disagreement over Iran.

After what was described as a "very candid discussion" with EU foreign ministers, Mr Powell said a draft resolution on Iran proposed by the UK, France and Germany was not tough enough on Tehran's non-compliance with nuclear treaty obligations.

He said: "We have some reservations about the resolution drafted that we have seen, and we'll be in discussion with our EU colleagues and other members of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Authority] as to whether or not the resolution is strong enough to convey to the world the difficulties we've had with Iran over the years."

America wants the IAEA to find Iran in breach of the treaty and report it to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.