WASHINGTON – Iraqis will have "a lot more sovereignty than they have right now" after the June 30 handover, but the United States will still control security and the caretaker government won't be able to make laws, the Bush administration's nominee to be ambassador to Iraq (search) said Tuesday.
"Let's remember this is going to be a transitional government, by definition limited in its time frame and the phrase 'caretaker government' has been used," John D. Negroponte (search) told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as his confirmation hearings opened.
"The implication of that term is that it's created for a limited period of time and with a particular focus," Negroponte said, adding that the focus will be organizing elections.
While Iraqi cabinet ministries may not be able to make new laws, they will carry out the government's day to day operations, he said.
"It is visualized that the Iraqi forces will come under the command of (U.S.-led) multinational forces," Negroponte said as senators pushed for quick approval of the man who will be "at the epicenter of international efforts" in Iraq.
"If political leadership should favor some particular strategy," but the U.S. military decides that another strategy is better, "these are the kind of questions that (all sides) will have to deal with," Negroponte said.
The issue of sovereignty has become key as the deadline for political handover approaches and as the United States pushes for a new United Nations (search) resolution on Iraq.
Pressed by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., on the issue of whether Iraqis would have veto authority over U.S. military involvement in violence-torn cities like Fallujah, for example, Negroponte said: "It's certainly going to be a lot more sovereignty than they have right now.
"We are putting a lot of effort toward helping them develop their own security capability... we are going to work toward the day that the Iraqis can take greater and greater responsibility for their own security" but they are not in a position to do that now, Negroponte said.
He said the world is interested in "the prospect of legitimacy" that a United Nations role can give the operation in Iraq.
"I want to make clear that a vital U.N. role does not come at the expense of the United States influence or interests," Negroponte told the committee. "A strong partnership with the international community, including the United Nations ... is in our strategic interest."
The U.S.-led Coalition Authority is planning to hand over power to an as-yet-unnamed transitional government on June 30, although a massive American presence will continue: some 135,000 U.S. troops and the largest U.S. Embassy, with 1,000 American and 700 Iraqi employees.
President Bush nominated Negroponte, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, just a week ago. Though such nominations can take months to process, Sen. Dick Lugar, the Indiana Republican who chairs the foreign relations panel began pushing immediately for a hearing.
"We cannot simply turn on the lights at the Embassy on June 30 and expect everything to go well," Lugar said in opening Tuesday's hearing. "We must be rehearsing with Iraqi authorities and our coalition partners how decision-making and administrative power will be distributed and exercised."
"It is critical, therefore, that Ambassador Negroponte and his team be put in place at the earliest possible moment," he said.
Questions about Negroponte's role in assisting the Nicaragua Contras (search), which Congress had forbidden, in their war with the socialist Sandinista government in the 1980s, had delayed his U.N. appointment by half a year in 2001. And the subject came up again Tuesday.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Ct., noted differences that he had with Negroponte when the diplomat was ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s.
"Those differences stem largely from a lack of candor about what the U.S. was and wasn't doing in Central America in the conflict at that time," Dodd said. "And although I intend to support and strongly support this nomination when it comes to a vote in this committee, and later on the Senate floor, I want to make one point especially clear: That same issue -- candor -- in my view, is going to be critical with respect to continued support for U.S. policies in Iraq."
Dodd told Negroponte that if the administration's policies are not working, "it'll be your duty to the American people to say so, and to say so very clearly and without any hesitation so that we can make course corrections before it's too late."
Then it will be Negroponte who is "at the epicenter of the international efforts to secure andreconstruct Iraq and provide the developing Iraq government with the opportunity to achieve responsible nationhood," Lugar said.