No exit date set in Bush handover plan

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The Independent Online

Britain and America unveiled plans yesterday to transfer political authority in Iraq to a new interim government at the end of next month, but failed to set a firm date for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

There was a mostly warm reception for a draft resolution, which theoretically ends the occupation, after its presentation to members of the UN Security Council in New York.

But some of the thorniest issues, concerning for instance the status of prisoners, were not addressed in the text. These are to be spelt out in an exchange of letters between the US-led multinational force and the Iraqi government whose members have not yet been named.

British officials confirmed that the letters on the status of forces would protect US and British troops from inter- national prosecution for war crimes. The issue is extremely delicate following the scandal over the treatment of prisoners in prisons in Iraq, notably at Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad.

The draft is part of a carefully choreographed effort by Washington to ease international and domestic concern over the worsening security situation in Iraq. It was released just hours before President George Bush was due to give a speech to spell out his vision for returning stability to the country over coming months.

The British ambassador to the UN, Emyr Jones Parry, said the resolution resolved doubts over whether full sovereignty would be returned to Iraq.

At its core, the resolution, once adopted, would signify a formal endorsement by the Security Council of the "formation of a sovereign Interim Government of Iraq that will take office by 30 June 2004", which will "assume the responsibility and authority for governing a sovereign Iraq".

The text lays down a timetable leading to direct elections for a transitional national assembly before 31 January next year.

The Coalition Provisional Authority, led by the American envoy Paul Bremer, will "cease to exist" after the end of next month. Moreover, the new interim government would have control of Iraqi oil and gas revenues, although it would not have the power to enter into long-term commitments, according to British officials.

Germany, a non-permanent member of the Security Council that was at the forefront of countries opposing the war last year, signalled that it was generally pleased with the draft. "Here there really is broad agreement," the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, told reporters in Germany. "A consensus is producable, possible and desirable".

The text makes it clear, however, that the multinational force, dominated by about 130,000 US soldiers, would remain under direct American command. And a French proposal that a deadline be set for their withdrawal from Iraq was not included.

Instead, the draft recommends that the issue of maintaining the force in Iraq should be reviewed by the Security Council 12 months after the resolution's adoption. In theory, the interim government could ask for such a review to take place at an earlier date, but diplomats said that was not likely to happen.

The text gives broad authority to the multinational force, saying it "shall have authority to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq including by preventing and deterring terrorism". But diplomats acknowledged that details of how the multinational force will relate to the new Iraqi authorities, as well as to the Iraq's own army and police force, have still to be resolved and will be addressed in the exchange of letters between the new Iraqi government and multinational force commanders.

Extremely sensitive questions that need to be sorted out range from what leeway the foreign forces will have to intervene in trouble spots and the conditions under which prisoners of war are held, interrogated and eventually released. But the Iraqi government would have an effective veto over US military operations.

British officials admitted that it was "ambitious" to hope that the resolution can be adopted before President Bush travels to France to mark the 60th D-Day anniversary on 6 June. The letters detailing the future security arrangements are to be finalised before the Security Council votes on the resolution.

Britain hopes the letters will provide for a National Security Committee, chaired by the Iraqi prime minister, whose members would include the Iraqi defence and interior ministers and the commander and deputy commander of the multinational force.

The Security Committee would be the main co-ordination mechanism, which would operate by "consensus" with the Iraqi authorities. The UN Special Representative in Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, is expected to name his choices for a prime minister, a president and two deputy presidents to lead the new interim government.

The strategy embedded in the resolution also depends heavily on the United Nations agreeing to re-engage fully in Iraq. But there is still no firm indication that the UN is ready to take on such a responsibility.

The draft resolution foresees the creation of a distinct unit within the broader multinational force that would be tasked with protecting future UN operations in the country.

Tony Blair will give his backing to President Bush's commitment to stay in Iraq at his monthly press conference in Downing Street today.

Senior Downing Street officials made it clear that the Prime Minister would reinforce Mr Bush's assurance to the US that coalition forces will not "cut and run".

The Prime Minister's official spokesman hinted that more British troops than the 3,000 already expected to be sent to the area may be deployed over a longer period.

He said: "It is not a knee-jerk response. It is a strategic response to the needs on the ground. We are determined that that our military advisers have as long as they need to put together the right options."

* Two-thirds of people oppose additional British troop deployments to Iraq, according to an ICM poll in today's Guardian.

The poll of 1,002 people found that 84 per cent believed that Tony Blair should insist that additional troops serve only under British command. Thirty-five per cent of those questioned said British and US troops should leave Iraq now. Overall, 44 per cent believed the war was justified compared with 43 per cent who said it was not.