GENEVA – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) said Saturday the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council narrowed their differences on a new Iraq resolution and he was "encouraged" by the progress.
But he also made it plain there still were big gaps with France on how and when to give Iraqis responsibility to govern.
Speaking after talks in Geneva mediated by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search), Powell said he hoped there would be an additional convergence of views in negotiations resuming next week in New York, where world leaders will gather for the U.N. General Assembly later this month.
"I will leave this meeting encouraged with the points of convergence but also recognizing that there are some difficulties and differences that have to be worked out," Powell said.
"What we are all committed is to ... is to put authority back in the hands of the Iraqi people for their own destiny and their own future as fast as is possible but in a responsible way."
Powell arrived in Kuwait early Sunday and will soon be headed to Iraq -- where he will become the highest-ranking American official to visit the country since the war.
Powell's meetings with colleagues from the Security Council were to try to narrow differences over the degree to which the United States should dominate postwar political arrangements in Iraq.
The draft resolution proposed by the United States invites the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to cooperate with the United Nations and U.S. officials in Baghdad to produce "a timetable and program for the drafting of a new constitution for Iraq and for the holding of democratic elections." The resolution would help shift the peacekeeping burden from Washington and create a multinational force under a unified U.N. command with an American commander.
Germany and, in particular, France have criticized the U.S. draft. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (search) said before the Geneva talks that any new U.N. resolution should contain a timetable putting a provisional Iraqi government in place within a month, followed by a draft constitution by the end of the year and elections next spring.
De Villepin -- one of the most persistent and eloquent opponents of the U.S. war on Iraq -- also has criticized U.S. demands for more troops from other countries to help restore peace, saying that simply sending in more soldiers will not satisfy the Iraqi thirst for sovereignty.
After the talks, Powell told a news conference that he focused on areas of both agreement and disagreement during talks with de Villepin.
"Dominique and I had excellent discussions," Powell said. "There is a basis for our representatives in New York to undertake discussions next week to see if we can find consensus."
He said earlier he believes he has the nine votes necessary for approval of the resolution, assuming there is no veto by France or another permanent member. Security Council members Russia -- which has veto power -- and Germany also have strong reservations about the U.S. draft. The various nations are planning more discussions in New York on the new resolution.
De Villepin sidestepped a question on whether France would use its veto power to down the U.S. resolution. He said he wanted to "try to find solutions, not to create new problems."
Despite de Villepin's insistence that the French wanted to be constructive and cooperative partners, French officials said the foreign minister had not withdrawn his proposal for a quick turnover of power in Iraq to local leaders.
"We think it is necessary to try to satisfy the principle of sovereignty to allow Iraq to take responsibility," de Villepin said.
Like France, Russia also is demanding a quick timetable for Iraq, although Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov kept a low profile at the Geneva talks, as did Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing.
Powell has said the huge U.S. investment in Iraq in lives and money would be at risk if France should prevail in its proposal for early transfer of authority from American to Iraqi control. Almost 300 American troops have died in Iraq since combat operations began, and President Bush has asked Congress for an additional $87 billion for his war on terror, mostly for postwar Iraq.
Speaking to American reporters shortly before boarding his plane to Iraq and Kuwait, Powell reiterated his view that the French timetable was "unrealistic."
"You have to have a government that is not only there with the doors open, but has to be functioning. ... in a way that people will have confidence in it. The worst thing one can do is to set them up for failure," he said.
Adnan Pachachi, a member of Iraq's Governing Council, said he told ministers they should give the council more responsibility.
"We are anxious to really hasten the whole political process because we want a government based on a constitution drafted by Iraqis as soon as possible and we want to see more powers," Pachachi said.
At a press conference after the talks wrapped up, Annan stressed the need for harmony among the world's most powerful nations.
"The unified approach by the permanent members will make it easier for the Security Council as a whole to devise an effective policy," he said. "Consensus is essential and achievable, but consensus is not enough. The council's approach must be coherent and well defined. We all share the aspiration to transfer power to the Iraqi people as soon as possible."
Powell's visit to Iraq, the country that has been the major focus of his attention since he took office, will be his first. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell will meet with Iraqis and with members of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in order "to see firsthand the progress being made by the international community and by the Iraqi people in rebuilding their nation and society."
The statement provided no additional details.