US agrees to international control of its troops in Iraq

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The United States accepts that to avoid humiliating failure in Iraq it needs to bring its forces quickly under international control and speed the handover of power, Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, has said. Decisions along these lines will be made in the "coming days", Mr Solana told The Independent.

The comments, signalling a major policy shift by the US, precede President George Bush's state visit this week to London, during which he and Tony Blair will discuss an exit strategy for forces in Iraq.

Mr Solana underlined the change of mood in Washington, saying: "Everybody has moved, including the United States, because the United States has a real problem and when you have a real problem you need help." There is a "growing consensus" that the transfer of power has to be accelerated, he said. "How fast can it be done? I would say the faster the better."

He added: "The forces will have to be there under aa different chapeau. The more the international community is incorporated under the international organisations [the better]. That is the lesson I think everyone is learning. Our American friends are learning that. We will see in the coming days decisions along these lines."

The Bush administration spelt out over the weekend its new plans for the faster transfer of power from Americans to the Iraqis, with a transitional government now scheduled to take over from the end of June. Before, US officials had said that Iraqi leaders should write a constitution first, then hold elections.

As the EU's foreign policy representative, Mr Solana has been playing a significant, behind-the-scenes role. Until now, the US had resisted putting the allied forces under international auspices, although there is growing support in Washington for a Nato role.

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, arrives in Brussels tonight for talks with EU ministers, which he will combine with a meeting with the retiring Nato secretary general, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. Diplomats say that Mr Powell is expected to "test the water" about the involvement of the transatlantic alliance in Iraq. The litany of setbacks, growing US casualties and the recent killing of 18 Italian servicemen has brought intense domestic and international pressure on the Bush administration to give the occupying force more legitimacy.

Eager to counter this domestic unease, the American military sought to advertise their latest crack-down. They declared that they had fired a satellite-guided missile at what they said was an insurgents' training camp west of Kirkuk.

But there was more grim news on Saturday with the collision of two Black Hawk helicopters after one was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Seventeen American soldiers died, the worst single loss of life in one incident since President Bush ordered the US-led invasion.

He insisted yesterday that the US would not "cut and run". In an interview with Breakfast with Frost on BBC1, the President said the United States would not spend "years and years" in Iraq. But he rejected as "not a fair comment" claims that the US was unprepared for winning peace. Mounting violence in Iraq was "nothing more than a power grab". He added: "There are some foreign fighters, mujahedin types or al-Qa'ida, or al-Qa'ida affiliates involved, as well."

America's chief post-war administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, also suggested that US-led forces would remain on a different basis. "Our presence here will change from an occupation to an invited presence," he said. "I'm sure the Iraqi government is going to want to have coalition forces here for its own security for some time.

There have been no specifics yet about how the international community would control the mainly American and British forces in Iraq. Nato remains the only strong possibility because it would provide international credibility while leaving control with a military organisation which Washington dominates.

Nato has already proved its willingness to act outside its traditional sphere of operations by taking a role in Afghanistan. But to allow it to deploy in Iraq would mean getting the approval of all 19 Nato allies including France, Germany and Belgium, all staunch opponents of the war.

They would need to be satisfiedthat the UN had been given a sufficient role in the political control of Iraq. Diplomats say that the US and Britain will need to be certain that no one will block an Iraq mission before they make a request.

With the US-led occupation likely to be declared over the next year, Mr Bremer said that work would start on a constitutional settlement. "We'll have a bill of rights. We'll recognise equality for all citizens. We'll recognise an independent judiciary. We'll talk about a federal government," he said.

Mr Bremer explained that the Americans would work with the Iraqi Governing Council in writing the interim constitution. There would also be a side agreement dealing with security and the presence of American and coalition forces in Iraq, he said.

Al-Qa'ida claimed responsibility for the bombings of two Istanbul synagogues which killed at least 23 people and vowed further attacks, the London-based Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi said yesterday.

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