WASHINGTON – The Bush administration had been stymied on Mideast peacemaking, Secretary of State Colin Powell says, until Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) offered to withdraw from Gaza and dismantle four settlements on the West Bank.
Palestinians and other Arabs should seize the opportunity rather than criticize Bush for saying some Jewish population centers might remain on the West Bank (search) in a peace deal, Powell said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press.
"We are not prejudging or prejudicing the outcome," he said.
But, he said, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) was being undercut by Yasser Arafat as predecessor Abu Mazen had been before resigning. "The reality is settlements are going to be removed" and the Palestinians, instead of criticizing, should "make the most of it," Powell said.
Concerning Iraq, Powell said Monday that one or more countries may follow Spain's lead and withdraw peacekeeping troops "based on their own political situation."
Last month, Spain's new Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (search), "indicated the troops would be staying through the end of June, which is when they are supposed to come out," Powell said.
And, Powell said, Zapatero had said that Spanish officials would then examine a U.N. resolution on peacekeeping if one was ready by then.
"And suddenly, troops are being withdrawn," Powell said with obvious disappointment with Zapatero's announcement Sunday he was ordering their departure "as soon as possible."
Powell said he expected the United Nations to approve a resolution on peacekeeping before the United States hands over political power to Iraqis on June 30.
Honduran president Ricardo Maduro said Monday night, after the Powell interview, that his country will pull its troops out of Iraq as soon as possible.
Powell, in the interview with the AP, denied he had been left out of the loop on Iraq within the Bush administration, or that he had been hesitant about taking on Saddam Hussein. Powell said he was committed from the outset to President Bush's war plan in the event diplomacy failed and was well informed about Bush's strategy.
"I was as committed as anyone else to seeing an end to this regime, the destruction of this regime that put people in mass graves," Powell said.
Disputing an account by Bob Woodward in a new book, "Plan of Attack," Powell said Bush and all his national security advisers had agreed in August 2002 to ask the U.N. Security Council (search) to seek a peaceful resolution and to go to war if the effort failed.
"We all talked to Woodward. It was part of our instructions from the White House," Powell said. He said he had "just a couple of phone calls" from the Washington Post editor.
Powell dismissed Woodward's suggestion that Bush already had made up his mind by Jan. 11 last year to go to war against Iraq and that Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar, had been informed of the decision that day.
Asserting that the final decision did not come until March, Powell said he was "intimately familiar with the plan and I was aware that Prince Bandar (search) was being briefed on the plan" by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I knew as much as anybody," Powell said. "I was included in all of the military planning and preparations."
Asked about his relationship with Cheney - Woodward wrote that the two were barely on speaking terms - Powell described their association as excellent.
He also said he did not recall referring to Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith and other civilian conservatives in the Pentagon loyal to Cheney as the "Gestapo office."
"It is a terrible term to use and it is out of place, completely out of place," Powell said.