Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday U.S.-led coalition forces would leave Iraq if asked to do so by the interim government that assumes power July 1, though he says such a request is unlikely. He discussed the pending transfer of sovereignty in Iraq with fellow foreign ministers of the G8 industrial nations and Russia.
The meeting here was nominally aimed at laying plans for the G8 summit meeting President Bush will host next month at Sea Island, Georgia.
But it was dominated by discussion of Iraq and particularly the terms of the transfer of sovereignty from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to an interim Iraqi government at the end of June.
Half the members of the G8 are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, where the United States is seeking a new resolution that would give political backing to the interim government, which would run Iraq until elections next January.
France and Russia, both critics of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq last year, want the interim government to be fully empowered, including having a say over how coalition forces would be used after June 30.
The Bush administration has until now been vague about that relationship, insisting that existing U.N. resolutions provide authority for forces to remain at least until January.
But pressed by reporters at a news conference capping the G8 meeting, Mr. Powell said the interim government would have the authority to order U.S.- led forces out of the country.
"I'm losing absolutely no sleep thinking that they might ask us to leave during this interim period, while we're building up their forces," he said. "But, just to make sure I'm not ducking the hypothetical, which I usually do, to make sure I'm not ducking the hypothetical here and causing any confusion, were this interim government to say to us we really think we can handle this one our own and it would be better if you were to leave, we would leave," he said.
Mr. Powell said coalition forces would continue be run during the interim period by an American commander, who by necessity would also have ultimate control over Iraqi security forces.
But he said consultative mechanisms will be set up to assure that the interim government is kept fully aware of what the coalition is doing, and that it is sensitive to Iraqi concerns.
For his part, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said his government - while ruling out sending troops to Iraq, is ready to support Iraqi reconstruction and work constructively for a new U.N. resolution.
But heard through an interpreter, Mr. Barnier said France will insist not only on the trappings of sovereignty for the interim Iraqi government, but also the hard facts of sovereignty including a degree of authority over security forces so that its legitimacy is accepted by the Iraqi people:
"We have to make sure that they have some kind of authority over the Iraqi forces during the specific period that runs from July of this year to January next year," he said. "There will have to be some kind of agreement and understanding as to how the multi-lateral force acts and what it does. But I think that the Iraqi government has to be in a position to govern. And that's why I mean that it has to be a break with the past."
The G8 ministers met earlier at the White House with President Bush, who urged the industrialized powers to put aside past differences over the war in Iraq and to help smooth the transfer of power there.
A Bush spokesman said the President insisted it is in the interests of all members of the grouping to make sure that there is a free and peaceful Iraq, which he said will make the world a safer and better place.