BERLIN – Germany, France and Britain sought to project a new European consensus Saturday before next week's U.N. General Assembly meeting on Iraq's future, agreeing broadly on a significant role for the United Nations and a transfer of power to Iraqis. But they were still divided on how quickly that should happen.
There was no sign of movement from French President Jacques Chirac (search), who insisted again that power should be transferred to the Iraqis within months, despite U.S. insistence, shared by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (search), that it's too early to establish a timetable.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (search) sought to act as intermediary at the hastily called summit, the first to bring together the leaders of anti-war France and Germany with Blair, the United States' closest ally, since Europe split over the Iraq war.
Still smarting over the Iraq war's damage to European attempts at formulating a common foreign policy, the leaders emphasized their willingness to negotiate a U.S. draft proposal seeking to include countries that did not participate in the war in postwar security and reconstruction.
But they deferred details to their diplomats at the U.N. meeting in New York, which begins Tuesday with a speech from President Bush.
Bush has said the draft proposal would not be ready in time for his speech but that he still plans to make the case for more international support in Iraq.
"We'll remind our European friends that we're making good progress there," Bush said last week at a news conference at Camp David.
Blair said it was important to recognize that everyone wants to see stability and democracy in Iraq.
"The very fact there is this discussion in the United Nation underlines the agreement on the key role the United Nations should have," he said.
"For myself I'm sure that whatever the differences that there are, they can be resolved, and I'm sure that they will be," Blair said.
Chirac sought to downplay the importance of the differences.
"This transfer of sovereignty should take place as rapidly as possible, in a matter of months, and basically we don't have a difference of opinion," the French president said. "But as far as the means and the timetable, we don't yet have an agreement."
All three leaders agreed that a U.N. resolution should contain a road map laying out steps to bring democracy to Iraq that would be overseen by the United Nations, a senior German diplomat said.
The first step being discussed is ensuring stability to Iraq, which the leaders agreed must be done by the Iraqis themselves, as a condition to transfer of power. But the key sticking point remained, according to the German diplomat: "What is a realistic timeline for handing over the government and political responsibility to the Iraqis?"
Schroeder, projecting a conciliatory note ahead of his first private meeting with President Bush since angering the White House with his opposition to war, has so far avoided discussing a timeline while maintaining a public posture backing the French.
While saying Germany has no plans to send troops to help secure Iraq, Schroeder also has offered to train Iraqi police and military in Germany to help contribute to stability.
Recent weeks have shown significant movement on the diplomatic front, as Washington has signaled it also wants a greater role for the United Nations and others have given up their objections to the allies retaining military control.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told journalists in Russia on Saturday that Moscow would not oppose a U.S.-commanded international force in Iraq, but emphasized that the terms and timeline of its involvement must be laid out by the U.N. Security Council. Moscow is not ruling out sending military personnel, but Putin said it wasn't on the agenda now.
More than building bridges to Washington, the Berlin summit also sought to mend fences within Europe and avoid disruptive policy splits as the European Union prepares for government consultations on the addition of 10 new members next year and a common EU constitution.
Blair, whose pro-war stand has caused him political problems back home, showed a willingness to compromise with Germany and France on some key initiatives in an apparent effort to strengthen his ties with the Franco-German axis, the continent's economic and political core.
The British leader, who normally favors structural reforms for improving the economy, backed their joint initiative to inject investment to spur the European economy. He also agreed that limits set out in the European stability and growth pact, which limits deficits to 3 percent of gross national product, should not be too constraining. Both France and Germany are currently above the limit.