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France, Britain Repeat Call for Strong UN Role in Post-War Iraq - 2003-04-09

French and British foreign ministers meeting in Paris have again called for the United Nations to play an important role in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. But the two offered no specifics on that role during a meeting aimed at improving cross-Channel ties.

At a news conference in Paris, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and his British counterpart, Jack Straw, took pains to list all the areas where France and Britain saw eye to eye - from the future of Africa and Europe, to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

But their talks were held against a backdrop of sour relations between France and Britain over the war in Iraq, with Paris leading international opposition to the conflict.

The two foreign ministers sought to play down emerging differences on the post-war role of the United Nations. Foreign Minister de Villepin suggested it was merely a matter of semantics whether the United Nations should play a vital or central role, but that it should play a key role in Iraq's post-war reconstruction.

French President Jacques Chirac said Tuesday the United Nations alone must be responsible for administering Iraq in the post-Saddam Hussein era.

Mr. Chirac's position echoes that of Russia and Germany. Leaders from all three countries meet in Russia Friday. But U.S. President George W. Bush has said only that the United Nations should have what he describes as a vital role, apparently in a humanitarian and advisory capacity.

Britain is under European pressure to seek a greater U.N. role. Mr. Straw appeared to strike a middle ground between the two sides in Paris, while stressing that Iraq must ultimately govern itself.

"Both we and the United States obviously wish to see as quickly as possible the creation of a representative democratic Iraqi government carrying the consent of its people," stressed Mr. Straw. "Responsible, crucially for its own security. That can not happen overnight."

In the interim, he said, U.S. and British forces on the ground must remain in Iraq, to provide security and stability.

The two men also expressed concern over the deaths of reporters covering the Iraq war, including those of three journalists on Tuesday. And they called for a rapid return to the Middle East peace process, suggesting it might provide a model to resolve other regional conflicts peacefully.

The cordial atmosphere between the two diplomats stood in marked contrast to frigid relations between France and Britain in recent months.

Last December, President Chirac called British Prime Minister Tony Blair badly brought up, after the two clashed on European farm subsidies. And Mr. de Villepin complained last month to Mr. Straw about the deluge of British criticism over France's anti-war position.

In Paris, Mr. de Villepin said it was important to learn from past differences. And Mr. Straw said life would be boring if the two countries were always in agreement.