Baker Iraq Mission to Begin in Glow of Arrest

With Saddam Hussein firmly in hand, President Bush's new emissary on postwar Iraq is facing the task of turning congratulations from world powers into wider international support for reconstruction, including promises to erase Iraq's crushing burden of foreign debt.

Even leaders of nations that opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq cheered the weekend capture of the ousted Iraqi leader.

Bush's new emissary, former Secretary of State James A. Baker (search), prepared for an overseas trip, just as the French foreign minister said France and other creditor nations are looking to strike a deal on helping Iraq reduce its foreign debt next year.

Baker's travels in his new post will take him to France, Russia, Britain, Italy and Germany.

France, which has had a rocky relationship with the United States since it led the opposition to the war, said the capture of Saddam, the ousted Iraqi president, would help stabilize Iraq and lead to its sovereignty.

"It's a major event that should strongly contribute to democracy and stability in Iraq and allow the Iraqis to master their destiny," French President Jacques Chirac (search) said in a statement.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (search), another foe of the U.S.-led invasion, struck an upbeat note in a letter to Bush released by the German government: "With much happiness I learned about the arrest of Saddam Hussein. I congratulate you on this successful action."

But in a separate statement, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer made a point of noting that the German government hoped Saddam's capture would give impetus to the swift transfer of power from the United States to the Iraqi people.

"This important success offers the chance to speed up the hand over of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government to increase stability in Iraq," Fischer said.

Few Arab governments — which also hold Iraqi debt — reacted immediately, perhaps waiting to judge the mood of an Arab public that was fonder of Saddam than were the fellow Arab leaders who had to deal with him for decades.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa referred to the arrest as a "great event."

A longtime Bush family friend, Baker is a veteran troubleshooter with extensive business and diplomatic relationships. In accepting his new unpaid, part-time post, he is taking on a difficult mission at a difficult time despite Saddam's capture.

The Pentagon announced last week that companies from Russia, Germany, France and other countries that opposed the Iraq war cannot bid on prime reconstruction projects financed by U.S. grants of $18.6 billion. The move infuriated the left-out countries and even drew criticism from some of Bush's most loyal Republican allies at home.

Russia, Baghdad's biggest creditor at $8 billion, made clear after learning of the policy it had no intention of writing off debt. The European Union has said it plans to investigate the legality of the ban, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called it "not unifying."

In all, Iraq owes some $40 billion to the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and other countries among 19 nations that belong to the Paris Club (search), an umbrella organization that conducts debt negotiations. At least an additional $80 billion is owed to other Arab countries and nations outside the Paris Club.

The administration has refused to say how much of the debt Iraq owes the United States will be forgiven.

The monumental task of restructuring such a large IOU, combined with anger over the contract ban, led White House officials to dampen hopes for progress by week's end, when Baker is to return and brief the president.

Bush aides offered little information about Baker's travel plans and gave little assurance they would discuss his meetings during the trip. They suggested instead that information must be obtained through the governments with which Baker is meeting.

Still, Bush has left no doubt of the mission's importance. The administration believes the staggering debt burden could hinder Iraq's ability to become a stable, functioning democracy.

With American troops in Iraq dying almost daily in attacks, criticism mounting of Bush's postwar strategy for the country and the presidential election in less than a year, the administration is eager to help Iraq to its feet quickly.

Bush laid the groundwork for his emissary last week, calling foreign leaders to request they receive Baker and urging them to respond positively publicly. "I'm hopeful that they're willing in some cases to contribute for the first time to the efforts of the Iraqi citizens," he told reporters.