BRUSSELS, Belgium – Secretary of State Colin Powell told Washington's European allies and friends Thursday the United States — not the United Nations — must have the lead role in Iraq's postwar reconstruction.
In a fast-paced series of meetings with his NATO and European Union counterparts at the NATO headquarters here, Powell did not resolve differences over the nature of the U.N role after the fighting is done in Iraq.
"I think the coalition has to play the leading role," he told a closing news conference. "But that does not mean we have to shut others out. There will definitely be a United Nations role, but what the exact nature of that role will be remains to be seen."
Powell's comments clashed with the view in European capitals that the reconstruction of Iraq should be guided by the United Nations, not the United States or Britain, which went to war against Iraq on March 20.
"We must stabilize Iraq and the region," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. "The United Nations is the only international organization that can give legitimacy to this."
Powell played down the differences, calling his meetings consultative. "I'll report back (to President Bush) what I heard. We are still examining the proper role for the United Nations."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at the world body's headquarters Thursday that "the idea of U.N. involvement in post-conflict Iraq is an issue under discussion."
"I believe the U.N. has a role to play," he said. "The extent and the nature of that role is under discussion here in the council and in other capitals."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Thursday "there will initially have to be a military occupation" in postwar Iraq.
However, he told British Broadcasting Corp. television, "What we want to see is a very, very swift transition ... to a situation where we set up an interim Iraqi administration and then a more permanent one which is a government of the Iraqis, for the Iraqis, by the Iraqis."
Powell and the Europeans reached tentative agreement that NATO should consider deploying peacekeepers in Iraq.
Powell said the United States made no formal request, but said, "I am pleased that there was a receptive attitude" to the suggestion which was first made last December.
At the time, the idea was shelved after French-led objections amid an increasingly acrimonious debate over Iraq that provoked one of the worst splits in alliance history.
"The ministers were ... more than willing to see whether other international organizations, like NATO, might have a role in helping" Iraq's reconstruction, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson told reporters.
He said that while there was no common view on any U.N role in postwar Iraq, Powell's talks were held "without acrimony."
Powell tried to counter European objections to American primacy in an interim military and administrative setup by holding out hope for a U.N. connection.
"This is the beginning of a discussion, the beginning of a dialogue," a senior U.S. official quoted Powell as telling the gathering of NATO and European Union foreign ministers.
Many European allies said it was an essential condition to assure a smooth transition to a postwar Iraq.
"I don't see how we could contribute to the reconstruction without the United Nations playing the key role," said Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel.
Diplomats suggested that France and its anti-war allies Germany and Belgium might accept a NATO peacekeeping operation that would build on the alliance's experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said NATO ambassadors could begin an examination of an alliance peacekeeping role next week.
On the issue of Iraq's reconstruction, the Europeans want the United Nations to take a lead role while the United States plans to install an interim American administrator in Baghdad at least in the immediate aftermath of Saddam fall.
French President Jacques Chirac has opposed giving Britain and the United States a dominant role in rebuilding Iraq, arguing that would legitimize the war.
Powell has spoken of an international "chapeau" for the rebuilding period in which the United Nations would provide "an endorsement, a recognition for what's being done" to rebuild Iraq after Saddam is ousted.
The Bush administration concedes the United Nations has a role in providing humanitarian relief to Iraqi civilians, but the tougher issue is determining the U.N. role in running Iraq until new and democratically inclined politicians arise.
On another front where there was far more unity, Powell said the U.S. administration would move swiftly to implement a "nonnegotiable" roadmap for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. The main goal is the establishment of a Palestinian state.
"A roadmap is ready to be delivered" once the new Palestinian prime minister has formed his government, he said. "We have been waiting for a new Palestinian leadership to come forward and we are now seeing that happen."
In an interview with Germany's ZDF television, Powell accused Syria and Iran of seeking weapons of mass destruction and backing terrorism, while insisting the United States was not seeking a new war.
"Sometimes political or economic measures are appropriate, sometimes intelligence capabilities or sometimes also force," he said. "But we're not looking for wars we can engage in."