Hardline American diplomat handed top job in Baghdad

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The Independent Online

Britain and the United States are to appoint top-level diplomats to become their first ambassadors to Iraq as part of the transfer of sovereignty to a new interim government. The handover is still scheduled for 30 June, despite the continuing insurgency in the country.

Britain and the United States are to appoint top-level diplomats to become their first ambassadors to Iraq as part of the transfer of sovereignty to a new interim government. The handover is still scheduled for 30 June, despite the continuing insurgency in the country.

George Bush is believed to have chosen his ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, to head a US embassy in Baghdad that will number about 3,000 people.

Mr Negroponte, 64, has a reputation as a hardened diplomat who attracted considerable controversy as the US ambassador to Honduras in the early Eighties when he was instrumental in assisting the Contras overthrow a leftist regime in Nicaragua. He has always denied allegations that he turned a blind eye to human rights violations, including death squads, in the region in that period.

The new British ambassador, who is working in London, has also been selected but not named. He or she will replace David Richmond, who took over the role in Baghdad after the recent departure of Sir Jeremy Greenstock.

The appointments represent the first efforts by London and Washington to lay down the pieces of the dauntingly complicated diplomatic and political jigsaw from which the shape of a post-30 June Iraq is meant eventually to emerge. The final package would be approved by a United Nations resolution.

How that jigsaw will look will depend on recommendations expected later this week from Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's special envoy, who has just completed 10 days of talks with the country's various factions on what kind of interim government might be practicable.

In Baghdad yesterday, Mr Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, indicated for the first time that he favoured convening a conference inside Iraq in early July, soon after the proposed handover of sovereignty, to elect an advisory council to assist whatever interim government was in place.

Diplomatic sources in New York said the government was likely to comprise heads of 10 to 12 new ministries in Baghdad plus a prime minister. It is not clear who would select those figures, although it would be likely come down to Mr Brahimi himself. Sources said he would try to fill the ministerial posts with Iraqi technocrats rather than religious or political figures.

In addition, Mr Brahimi is said to favour finding three more elevated personalities in Iraq who together would form some kind of presidency for the new country, primarily representing its interests abroad. It is probable those figures would come one each from the Shia, Sunni and Kurd factions.

The exercise will be portrayed by London and Washington as the technical ending of the occupation. Symbolic of it will be the withdrawals of Paul Bremer, the American in control of the occupation, and of Mr Richmond, who has been in Baghdad for almost a year.

The workability of the proposed plan, as well as the futures of the Allied forces in Iraq and of the UN itself, will be at the heart of discussions in New York this evening between Tony Blair and Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general. Mr Blair will meet Mr Bush in Washington tomorrow.

The proposed UN resolution will seek to endorse the interim government and provide approval for the continuing presence after 30 June of the US-led military force in Iraq. It will also detail what Washington hopes will be a key role in the country for the UN, in arranging elections that are tentatively set for January next year. It is not clear, however, that the UN will agree to re-engage in Iraq.

Outlining his idea for a conference in July, Mr Brahimi insisted that the "all-important aim is promoting national dialogue, consensus-building and national reconciliation in Iraq".

The advisory council that he envisages will not make laws, but advise the ministers and prime minister. His plan seems to include eliminating the Iraqi Governing Council. Washington wants to create a government by expanding its numbers.

Mr Brahimi expressed confidence that a caretaker government could be installed in time for 30 June, but he emphasised the importance of full-blown elections. There is "no substitute for the legitimacy that elections provide", he told a news conference. But, casting doubt on whether they could be held next January, he said, the "security situation must considerably improve before elections can take place". Diplomats admit that problems remain, particularly on detailing the relationship between the government and the multinational force that will still remain.

The occupation has been marked by differences between the Americans and the British over tactics in Iraq, although British officials yesterday played down suggestions of a rift between Mr Bremer and Sir Jeremy, who is said to have been frustrated by his advice being disregarded. Sir Jeremy is understood to have been angered by a report that there were personal tensions between him and Mr Bremer.

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