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Sharing Power in Iraq

September 15, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now to that diplomatic problem with France over Iraq. It’s about when the United States should turn over its occupation powers to Iraqis and to the United Nations. That was the issue at a Saturday meeting in Geneva with Secretary of State Powell, U.N. Secretary-General Annan, and other members of the U.N. Security Council. Secretary Powell described the meeting at a news conference yesterday in Baghdad.

COLIN POWELL: We had a good discussion of the resolution. We all have a common view that a resolution would be useful to point in the direction of a full return of sovereignty in Iraq to the Iraqi people. Every nation has a slightly different perspective. There was a disagreement and still is a disagreement between some of us and others– France in particular– over the rate at which the turnover should take place and whether or not you should go through the whole constitutional and elective process before you have a government that can be seen as legitimate before the eyes of the world and the eyes of the Iraqi people. That’s what the debate was about. It was a very long debate. We went on for a number of hours. And I think we saw areas where we converged in our thinking, but there are still some differences. And we now have to expand the group that’s debating this to all 15 members, not just the five of us.

JIM LEHRER: Powell was asked about demands from some members of the Iraqi governing council for a faster hand-over of power.

COLIN POWELL: Everybody would like to accelerate this. Everybody wants this to go fast. We don’t want to stay here a day longer. It is expensive. Our young soldiers would like to get home to their families. So we are not hanging on for the sake of hanging on. We are hanging on because it’s necessary to stay with this task until a new government has been created, a responsible government.

The worst thing that could happen is for us to push this process too quickly before the capacity for governance is there and the basis for legitimacy is there and see it fail. We are not occupiers. We have come under a legal term having to do with occupation under international law, but we came as liberators. We have experience being liberators. Our history of the last 50, 60 years is quite clear. We have liberated a number of countries, and we do not own one square foot of any of those countries except where we bury our dead.

JIM LEHRER: And to the French perspective. It comes from France’s ambassador to Washington, Jean-David Levitte. Mr. Ambassador, welcome.


JIM LEHRER: How would you describe the disagreement between your country and the United States on this turnover issue?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: First I would say, Jim, that we will help. We will help because what is at stake is of enormous importance, for the Iraqi people first, but also for the whole Middle East and also for the relations between the Muslim world as a whole and the western world. So we will help. We agree with the U.S. position on the first of the draft resolution which has been proposed to the Security Council. We support the idea of a multinational force with a mandate of the Security Council, and U.S. leadership, no problem.

JIM LEHRER: This is the military part?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Yes, exactly. We have no problem; we support it. Second, we support the idea of a timetable proposed by the Iraqis themselves. So where do we disagree? We say, adding troops will not be enough. It is important to give the Iraqi people a message of empowerment as we did in Afghanistan. Look, in Afghanistan we had right from the beginning a president, Karzai, with a government and they represent the sovereignty of Afghanistan, and we have the U. N., Lakhdar Brahimi, in a strong position and of course the U.S., the U.S. is playing a very important role. But the U.S. is not criticized as an occupying power or too much presence and so on. So having this reference in mind, you understand what we would like to add to the draft resolution. First a symbolic transfer of sovereignty –

JIM LEHRER: Symbolic?


JIM LEHRER: Not really give power to this civilian governing council?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Not yet. Symbolic transfer of a sovereignty of Iraq in the hands of the governing council of Iraq — and then as expeditiously as possible, a transfer of responsibilities in the hands of the ministers as soon as they are ready to exert these responsibilities.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say to Secretary Powell who says that’s all fine, but this council is in no way prepared to do that, that the people are not the place to govern the country yet?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Well, let’s be fair — with the members of this council, they have been chosen by the operative, the U.S., and the U.K. — and with the U.N. — with the cooperation of the U. N. — they represent the best we can provide for the time being. It is unfair to them to consider they are not in a position to represent the sovereignty of Iraq, in a symbolic way.

JIM LEHRER: Now, has France done some work on the ground? Are you convinced that these 25 people were chosen but for ethic reasons, not for their ability to govern, and they were chosen by the United States as a first step leading toward, as you know, a constitutional government on elections and all of that, they weren’t selected to do what you want them to do. You agree with that, right?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Yes. But we consider that they are doing a fine job. At the beginning we were a bit skeptical, and when we negotiated the first resolution we preferred to the word “endorses” the word “welcomes”… but now we say, hey, they have appointed ministers. And they did that by consensus, so it works. Of course it’s not perfect and we hope for an elected government. But in the meantime, let’s help this governing body to emerge as the representation of Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Why is it so important to France that it be done your way?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Well, first we don’t want to impose anything. We want to discuss with our partners in this greater council and along with the U.S. but also with the Iraqis themselves and with the U. N., the representative to be selected by Kofi Annan, and from this conversation, this discussion we would like to see emerging a consensus, and it’s very important at that moment to send a powerful message to the Iraqi people. For the time being, Jim, they are in a wait and see position. They don’t want to be involved because they don’t feel that they are represented, that they are empowered. That’s our message.

JIM LEHRER: What about the message that some people are real-timing into the percentage position which is France is also trying to send a message to the United States, hey, wait a minute, you all are the problem and you need to get out of there and there’s some residue of bad feeling from what happened back in March when there was not a resolution et cetera, that this is a message to the United States more than it is to the Iraqi people –

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: No, I don’t think so, Jim. I think it would be unfair to say that; the bitter page has been turned, and we are preoccupied by the situation in Iraq, and what is at stake is of key importance, also for European countries. It’s next-door for us. Iraq, the Middle East, it’s next-door. And we have a huge interest to make Iraq a success story, and we are ready to help.

JIM LEHRER: But why is it that it’s the United States versus France – France was the leader the first time, France is the leader again this time. What’s going on between the United States and France?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: That’s a good question. I would be more than happy to remind everybody that the amendments to the draft have been presented together by Germany and France. My understanding of the situation is that Russia and China, but maybe also a few others share basically our views. But in the media they like to see our two countries in a big battle again. That is not our view. We would like to work hand in hand with the U.S. and all the members of the Security Council to find the best way forward. That’s our goal.

JIM LEHRER: This question of moving quicker than the United States wants to move, there have been folks who have pointed out, and people in the U.S. Government, some U.S. columnists and others — that the U.N. took seven years, ran the country of Bosnia before it turned over control back to the Bosnian people — four years in Kosovo, two years in East Timor. Why such a rush in Iraq?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Well, first, it was very clear right from the beginning in Bosnia, in Timor, in Afghanistan, that the sovereignty was in the hands of the governments in these countries. And that’s our first message. Let’s do that also in Iraq, it is possible because it is a symbolic gesture. And then let’s be pragmatic, if the finance minister is in a position to exert his responsibilities, we have a good team, why not — shouldn’t we transfer the power to exert these responsibilities as soon as possible…

JIM LEHRER: Your position must be based on a possible scenario — worst case scenario. What is it, that if it continues the way it is now, the situation on the ground continues the way, and you follow the U.S. plan, what will happen?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: What we fear from past experiences is a kind of Lebanon scenario, where you would see the different oppositions existing in Iraq, triggering a kind of infighting. Now we have to gather all the energies in Iraq toward the same goal — a democratic system as soon as possible. That’s why we must mobilize the energies which exist in Iraq. How can we do that by sending a powerful message to the Iraqi people now.

JIM LEHRER: How serious an issue thinks to France? Your foreign minister has written – wrote a piece in Le Monde before the meeting in Geneva over the weekend. Is France prepared to veto a resolution that does not suit you on this? I mean, how big a deal is this for you all?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: No, we are working in a very positive spirit. Let me remind you that the two resolutions, which have been adopted on Iraq since the war has ended, have been adopted unanimously. That is our goal. We want unanimity; we are flexible; and we hope that our American friends will show a degree of flexibility also.

JIM LEHRER: Have you seen any signs of flexibility on the U.S. side?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Well, yes, the Geneva meeting was an excellent meeting. The ministers discussed practical issues, how can we work together forward, so I hope that, yes, in the coming days and the sooner the better there will be a consensus. That’s our hope.

JIM LEHRER: Is it more important to France that there be a right resolution than there — in other words, would you rather have no resolution, would you rather have that than a resolution that is flawed?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: No. It’s very important that we adopt, and the sooner the better, a good resolution, the best possible. Then, if we are 100 percent satisfied we’ll say bravo. If not we’ll say well, next time we hope to do a better job.

JIM LEHRER: So there’s going to be a resolution if France has its way?

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: That’s our hope, and we are determined to work to that end.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.

JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Thank you very much, Jim.