UNITED NATIONS – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said Friday that the United States would like Iraqi leaders to produce a new constitution in six months, paving the way for elections perhaps six months later and a return to self-rule.
The United States wasn't setting a deadline, he stressed, saying that would imply serious consequences if it was not met.
"Six months seems to be a good timeline to put out there for the creation of this constitution, and also to give a sense of momentum and purpose to the effort of moving toward full restoration of authority over Iraq to the Iraqi people," Powell told reporters after a high-level meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (search).
If the constitution can be finished in six months, then the Iraqis would ratify it and prepare for elections, Powell said. "Some people say it would be another six months for elections, but we really can't be precise about it."
His comments came as opponents of the war in Iraq -- including France, Germany and Russia -- called for the United Nations (search) to take over the political transition in Iraq and demanded a speedier timetable for the U.S.-led occupation to hand over power.
It also came as the U.N. Security Council (search) weighs a new resolution on Iraq, which the Bush administration hopes will allow for more funding and troops.
Britain -- Washington's main partner in the war and closest European ally -- thinks elections cannot be rushed and believes summer is a more realistic prospect. A new consitution ready within six months would clear the way for a summer vote.
"We welcome Colin Powell's statement, and we are committed to elections during the course of next year, and hope this fits in with that," a British Foreign Office spokesman said in London, on customary condition of anonymity. "We are looking forward to continuing work on the resolution next week."
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (search), who was attending another meeting at U.N. headquarters, refused to answer a question seeking his reaction to Powell's timetable.
Powell, in an interview with The New York Times, said the new resolution probably would not mention a fixed schedule but could include references to a constitution, elections and the installation of a new leadership.
He suggested the timetable instead would be between coalition authorities and the Iraqis.
Despite calls for a greater U.N. role in postwar reconstruction, Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) ordered more staff cutbacks in Iraq after a second bombing of U.N. headquarters there.
The reductions, announced Thursday, highlighted the dilemma of trying to internationalize efforts to stabilize Iraq.
"This is not an evacuation, just a further downsizing and the security situation in the country remains under constant review," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
Annan's order came after the second bombing outside U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on Monday killed an Iraqi policeman and wounded 19 others.
The first bombing, on Aug. 19, killed 22 people at the headquarters. At that time, there were about 300 international staff in Baghdad and another 300 elsewhere in Iraq, and Annan ordered the number reduced to 42 in Baghdad and 44 in the north.
Eckhard said he did not know how many of the 86 remaining staffers would leave for Amman, Jordan. But a U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said more than half would depart.
The United Nations' humanitarian work should be able to continue, with limited international supervision and using the 4,233 Iraqis working for the United Nations, Eckhard said.
But Annan has indicated that if security is not improved, he might not be able to allow the return of international staff in the numbers needed to oversee more than the minimum humanitarian needs, and a larger U.N. role possibly helping with a new constitution and elections would be out of the question.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who strongly opposed the U.S.-led war, led the calls Thursday for a broadened role for the world body in Iraq.
"Only the direct participation by the United Nations in the rebuilding of Iraq will enable its people themselves to decide their future," Putin said during the third day of the General Assembly's annual ministerial debate.
Putin began and ended his speech by stressing the United Nations' importance and said powerful countries have an obligation to work within it.
"Being a world power means being together with the world community," he said in an obvious allusion to the United States.