Bush says 'no free nation can be neutral' in call for international support to help stabilise Iraq

On the eve of a crucial meeting between the US and its key United Nations partners, President Bush yesterday issued an uncompromising demand for international support for Washington's faltering attempt to restore stability to Iraq.

Speaking in his favourite setting of a military base, before a cheering audience of soldiers, Mr Bush said Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, would tell the other veto-holding members of the Security Council that "no free nation can be neutral in the fight between civilisation and chaos".

His language - which was reminiscent of the "either-with-us-or-against-us" gauntlet he threw down immediately after 11 September - does little to suggest that the US will be prepared to give much ground in its pursuit of a new UN resolution authorising the dispatch of a multinational force to Iraq.

Today's meeting in Geneva will be attended by General Powell and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Russia, which led opposition on the Security Council to the invasion. Washington's fervent hope is that it will produce enough agreement to permit passage of a new text, ideally before Mr Bush addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 23 September.

But despite a continuing fall in his approval ratings (down to 52 per cent according to a new CNN poll released yesterday) and mounting criticism of his handling of the Iraq crisis, Mr Bush sounded in no mood for concessions. "It's time for others to join us," he told soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division at their base in Fort Stewart, Georgia. The defeat of the terrorists in Iraq "must be the cause of the civilised world". The sticking point in Geneva is likely to be the demand of France and Germany, a non-permanent member of the 15-nation council, for a fast and specific timetable for the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty, and a central role for the United Nations in the civilian administration of the country. This would imply a curtailment of the powers of Paul Bremer, the head of the occupying coalition authority.

By contrast, there is no argument that the US should retain de facto control of military operations, even if the American commander is obliged to report back periodically to the Security Council. The real question is whether even a new UN resolution would persuade other reluctant countries to contribute troops to supplement the 180,000-strong, overwhelmingly American, force already there.

India, one of the countries Washington had been hoping to win over, made clear that it would not send troops, even if a new resolution goes through. And given the risks in Iraq, few other governments may be willing to send troops.

Spelling out France's stance in an article in Le Monde, the foreign minister Dominique de Villepin said that a provisional Iraqi government should be in place within a month, followed by a draft constitution by the end of the year and elections next spring.

But General Powell said in interviews this week that while the US wants to restore Iraqi sovereignty "as fast as we can," the United Nations "isn't ready to handle" assuming all authority. The best prospect, held out by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, is "some convergence" in Geneva that would at least prevent a repeat of the pre-war débâcle on the Security Council.

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