Negroponte Lead Candidate for Iraq Ambassador

John D. Negroponte (search), the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who played a central role in trying to win support for war with Iraq, is emerging as the leading candidate for the sensitive job of ambassador to Baghdad.

Several Bush administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Negroponte's nomination would be announced soon, although others cautioned a final decision on an envoy to Iraq had not been made.

The administration plans to restore Iraqi self-rule by July 1, but intends to keep at least 100,000 troops there for at least a year.

While suffering mounting losses, the U.S. peacekeepers and their allies are trying to defeat militias and remnants of the overthrown government. Negroponte, no stranger to conflict, served as a young foreign service officer in Vietnam.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad (search) will be housed temporarily in a palace that belonged to deposed President Saddam Hussein and when fully manned will be the largest in the world.

Negroponte, 64, is a career foreign service officer (search) whom President Bush recruited from the corporate world to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (search).

There, he helped win approval of a resolution to expand the mandate of an international security force in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban (search) government.

On Iraq, Negroponte was instrumental in winning unanimous approval by the Security Council of a resolution that demanded the Saddam Hussein government comply with U.N. resolutions that it disarm.

The resolution helped the Bush administration then make a case for war with Iraq, but the Council refused to endorse the overthrow of Saddam, preferring an extension of U.N. weapons searches.

Negroponte's nomination for the U.N. post was confirmed by the Senate in September 2001 after a half-year delay caused mostly by criticism of his record as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985.

There he played a prominent role in assisting the Contras in Nicaragua in their war with the left-wing Sandinista government, which was aligned with Cuba and the Soviet Union.

For weeks before his Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Negroponte was questioned by staff members on whether he had acquiesced to human rights abuses by a Honduran death squad funded and partly trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (search).

Negroponte testified that he did not believe the abuses were part of a deliberate Honduran government policy. "To this day," he said, "I do not believe that death squads were operating in Honduras."

At the United Nations on Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Negroponte "an outstanding professional, a great diplomat and a wonderful ambassador."

But Annan said he did not know whether Negroponte was headed for Baghdad.

Besides Negroponte, the administration was understood to be considering Robert Blackwill (search), a former ambassador to India and now director of Iraq policy at the White House, former NATO commander George Joulwan (search) and two retired U.S. ambassadors, Thomas Pickering (search) and Frank Wisner (search), for the post.