Secretary of State Powell is defending Bush administration diplomacy on Iraq following criticism by Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry in Thursday's debate that the United States had shunted allies aside in a rush to war against Saddam Hussein. He spoke after talks Friday with Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht.

Mr. Powell has held to the traditional role of a Secretary of State and largely steered clear of the campaign debate, pointedly passing up an appearance at last month's Republican convention in New York.

However, he is defending administration diplomacy in Iraq following Mr. Kerry's debate assertions that the Bush White House pushed allies aside in a rush to war in Iraq and has left U.S. alliances in shatters.

At a joint press appearance with his Belgian counterpart, the Secretary said he cannot accept the Democratic candidate's assertion, and that the Bush administration's stress has always been on multi-lateralism, including in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

"Every time we have faced one of these challenges the United States has not acted unilaterally," he said. "We've gone to the United Nations and we've gone to the international community. That's what we're doing with respect to proliferation activities in Iran. It's what we're doing with respect to the North Korean (nuclear) program. It's what the President did when he went to the United Nations on the 12th of September, 2002. And we'll continue to work with our friends and allies and we should not denigrate the contribution that any of our friends and allies are making to this effort."

Mr. Powell acknowledged there were serious disagreements between the United States and its European allies over the decision to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein, and said differences remain as evidenced by opinion polls showing most Europeans still disapproving of U.S. actions.

But he said he hopes attitudes will change after Iraq and Afghanistan hold free elections and have governments able to stand on their own two feet and defend themselves.

Both Mr. Powell and his Belgian colleague said they had set aside the past and focused on the future of Iraq including NATO's commitment to help train Iraqi security forces.

Mr. De Gucht, who only last week criticized President Bush's hopeful assessment of Iraq in a U.N. General Assembly address as wildly optimistic, none-the-less said the Iraqi elections to be held by the end of January should help stabilize the situation.

"It is very important that we get to elections at the foreseen date in January, because that's probably the only way to give more legitimacy to the government and the parliament that will come out of these elections, and also the constitution that afterwards is to be drafted by the newly-elected parliament," he said. "That will have to take into account the specific situation of Iraq with several minorities and a majority, and the whole play of checks and balances that will have to be discussed by them."

Mr. De Gucht said he and Mr. Powell agreed on the important of an early handover of most security responsibility from the U-S led coalition to Iraqi forces.

The Belgian foreign minister, on his first Washington visit since assuming the post on July, said he also discussed the situation in east Africa's Great Lakes region with Mr. Powell and with Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Constance Newman.

The Belgian official has been pressing for an international conference on peace, security and development in the Great Lakes area, a project slowed by disputes between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.