SEA ISLAND, Ga. – The Bush White House, expecting a quick vote on a U.N. resolution formalizing a new agreement between the fledgling Iraqi government and the United States, focused Monday on dealing with criticism of its effort to promote democracy throughout the larger Middle East.
President Bush wants his greater Middle East initiative to be one of the key accomplishments of the 30th annual Group of Eight economic summit (search) of the world's seven richest industrial countries and Russia.
Bush spent Monday secluded at one of the multimillion-dollar "cottages" on the famed resort spot of Sea Island, Ga., preparing for the arrival of other world leaders on Tuesday.
Bush and his top aides are lobbying their counterparts for a U.N. Security Council (search) resolution that would endorse the handover of sovereignty in three weeks and authorize a multinational force to remain in Iraq to help provide security.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) told Fox News on Monday that she expects a vote on the resolution within the next few days.
"I do think we are very close — I think we all believe that in the next several days" there will be a vote, Rice said from Georgia. "The fact is, we have an understanding with the Iraqi government — with the prime minister — how the multinational force will relate with the Iraqi government."
Rice noted that the United States has helped provide security for other newly sovereign governments like those in Afghanistan and Bosnia, while the indigenous leaders ran the country.
"We've come to a mechanism to work out the different issues, including policy issues related to sensitive military operations," Rice said. "We have a good understanding with the Iraqis and I hope the international community would say 'all right, if that's what the Iraqis and the multinational force have worked out,' then OK."
Earlier on Monday, Rice hailed the deal reached over the weekend between the leader of the new Iraqi government and the United States.
An exchange of letters between the two governments made clear that sovereignty will be transferred at the end of the month. The letters also outlined a new military partnership, under which Iraqis would have some say over the actions of U.S. commanders — but not a veto.
"We believe that understanding should now give comfort to all that the Iraqis will indeed have full sovereignty," Rice told reporters, adding that the pact "should answer any questions about the relationship between Iraqi sovereignty and the multinational force."
The United States and Britain are pushing for a quick vote on a new Iraq resolution, but France and Germany still are backing an amendment to ensure that Iraq's new interim government can veto major operations by the U.S.-led multinational force.
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said a revised draft will soon be introduced. The United States was hoping to finalize the text Monday night, "with the idea of voting on it on Tuesday afternoon or Tuesday evening," he said.
Rice said that the United States and other governments are "still in the stages of finalizing a number of elements in the resolution, but I think it's fair to say that the spirit moving forward is very good, people are working very hard at it."
Rice said no one should expect a large infusion of foreign forces in Iraq, but the resolution will make coalition partners facing opposition at home for their role in Iraq "more capable of staying the course. They all want to stay the course."
The "real focus" of efforts now, she told Fox News, should be on training Iraqis to secure their own country — they don't want to see more foreign troops there.
"They very much want to be now in charge of their future," Rice said. "They very much want to be able to care of security problems [but] they need help."
Focus on the Middle East
Bush faces deep skepticism over an initiative — to promote democracy throughout the Middle East — that he hopes the Group of Eight nations will endorse. G-8 members include the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia.
Just as last year's summit in the Alpine resort of Evian, France, was heavily focused on Iraq, the get-together Tuesday to Thursday will focus on problems of the Middle East. Discussions were scheduled to begin Tuesday.
The G-8 leaders are expected to vote to extend and expand a debt-relief program for the world's poorest nations, due to expire at the end of this year. They are also likely to endorse a new peacekeeping force to deal with conflicts in places such as Africa.
Rice said that what makes this year's meeting so historic is that the Arab foreign ministers have been talking about Middle East reform more in the past seven months "than they have at any other time," and that the new Iraqi president will attend less than one year since Saddam Hussein was in power.
"It's remarkable that we're now in a place where a new Iraqi government can come here to the G8 and make the case for liberty in Iraq," Rice said.
Bush has invited the leaders of six African countries — Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda — to have lunch with the summit leaders on Thursday to review progress on a G-8 action plan to attack poverty, AIDS and famine on the continent.
On terrorism, Rice said that Russia has indicated it is willing to join a core group of countries cooperating on efforts to combat the shipment of nuclear weapons material.
Administration officials expect the summit to also strengthen the effort to take out of circulation shoulder-fired missiles capable of bringing down commercial jetliners.
The G-8 will meet over lunch Wednesday with the leaders of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Turkey, Yemen and a representative of the new Iraqi interim government to discuss Bush's proposal for a broader Middle East initiative.
However, a leaked draft of the proposal caused an uproar in Arab nations that perceived it as an arrogant America pushing its own ideas. And several Arab countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, turned down Bush's invitation to attend the Sea Island summit.
Rice tried to minimize the significance of the absence of key Mideast countries, despite the administration's effort to put its Mideast democracy initiative front and center here.
"There were a lot of reasons why certain heads of state were not able to be here," she said.
Nevertheless, Rice insisted that the president's proposal, which has caused some consternation in the region, has stimulated "in these countries a debate and a discussion about how they will move forward."
Noting that leaders of countries including Jordan and Bahrain do plan to attend the summit, she said, "This is not a discussion the G-8 is having about the Middle East. It's a discussion they're having with the Middle East."
The final G-8 document, to be released Wednesday, presses governments throughout the region to step up efforts at promoting democracy, freedom and human rights, a senior administration official familiar with the document told journalists.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.