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Powell to Give Iraqi Leaders Deadline for Self-Rule Plan

By Steven R. Weisman

The New York Times -- NEW YORK

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, responding to demands from France and others for a rapid timetable for self-rule in Iraq, said on Thursday that the United States would set a deadline of six months for Iraqi leaders working under the American-led occupation to produce a new constitution for their country.

The constitution, which would spell out whether Iraq should be governed by a presidential or parliamentary system, would clear the way for elections and the installation of a new leadership next year, Powell said. Not until then, he added, would the United States transfer authority from the American-led occupation to Iraq itself.

“We would like to put a deadline on them,” Powell said in an interview with editorial writers, editors and reporters for The New York Times, referring to the Iraqi task of writing a constitution. “They’ve got six months. It’ll be a difficult deadline to meet, but we’ve got to get them going.”

Powell’s establishment of a deadline, and his tone of urgency in general, came as the United States has tried to satisfy France and other skeptics who charge that a quick turnover of power to Iraqis must be part of any Security Council resolution expanding U.N. authority in Iraq.

The United States has resisted a turnover of a month or months as suggested by France, arguing that granting authority to an un-elected Iraqi government would undercut its legitimacy in the eyes of the world. On Thursday, Powell went further, saying that remnants of the Saddam Hussein government and his Baath Party would lead a rebellion against such a government.

“These are ex-Baathists,” Powell said of those carrying out violence. “They would go after an illegitimate government that does not enjoy the will of the people, just as easily as they would go after us.” The Iraqi Governing Council, composed of leading Iraqi politicians, was appointed not elected.

The idea of a fixed time schedule is unlikely to be incorporated into the resolution, which is being negotiated, Powell said. But he said the general principle of events like the writing of a constitution, elections and an installation of new leadership may well be in the resolution.

The secretary’s comments at The New York Times came on another day of intensive negotiations to try to get support on the council for the resolution, which the United States is seeking as a crucial step to help persuade other countries to send troops and financial assistance to secure and rebuild Iraq.

Powell said he thought the last several days at the U.N. General Assembly had produced some progress on getting the backing of all 15 countries on the council, including France, the primary critic of the American approach.

The French demand that the turnover to Iraq be accomplished in a month, Powell said, was no longer even being discussed seriously at the council.

While rejecting the idea of an American-established timetable, Powell raised the possibility that the Iraqis themselves could set a timetable in the near future, and this itself could widen support for the resolution. The United States has asked the Iraqi leaders to say how long it would take to write a charter and conduct elections, he said.

“Now if they take forever to give us the answer to that question, then we’ve got a problem,” Powell said. “But I think they’ll give us an answer fairly quickly.”