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Friday, April 4

Postwar plans test U.S. relationships

By Jon Frandsen | GNS

WASHINGTON - The war in Iraq is still unfolding, but the United States is trying to round up other countries to help rebuild the country once the fighting is over - a task severely hampered by the bitter splits that erupted when the Bush administration decided to act without U.N. support.

Relations between the United States and many of its European allies are as tense as any time since they formed NATO a half century ago to counter the Soviet threat. With near-universal agreement that the global community should help stabilize postwar Iraq, diplomats and observers say a joint rebuilding effort could help repair those breeches.

They warn, however, that hostility, lingering resentment and mutual suspicions could prevent cooperation between the United States, United Nations and countries opposed to the war on a detailed reconstruction plan. That could harm relationships even more, and make occupation of the country more treacherous.

"Just as we are going to have to rebuild Iraq, we're going to have to bring NATO back to ... consensus and unity," Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to NATO, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The splits are not just international.

There is fierce disagreement in Washington - in Congress and among President Bush's top advisers - over how much control the United States should retain during the reconstruction period.

The disagreement centers around two things: How large of a role should be given to the United Nations? And should there be room at all for countries such as France and Germany, which are opposed to the war and the United States' decision to go into Iraq without U.N. backing?

Massive undertaking and risk

Reconstruction will be a Herculean and potentially lucrative task - at least for some - as relief efforts, security needs and rebuilding of key Iraqi facilities are undertaken.

The political stakes in the postwar occupation and rebuilding of Iraq are, perhaps, even more enormous.

The war is based upon the premise that once the region is rid of Saddam Hussein, it will want to build a democracy that is friendlier to the West.Attaining that goal could prove nearly impossible if the United States and Britain are perceived by Iraqis and the Muslim world as an occupying power bent on controlling the country and exploiting its resources - an image that the coalition's enemies are busily trying to craft.

To avoid that perception, the United States hopes to hand off formal administrative duties to an interim Iraqi government quickly - possibly within four to six weeks, according to Rep. Doug Bereuter of Nebraska, a top Republican on the House International Relations Committee. Bereuter has been working closely with Bush's National Security Council on postwar plans.

The United States hopes strong international involvement will avoid any suggestion that an interim government is a mere American puppet.

U.N. involvement

Officials in France and other countries argue that the best way to avoid the perception of an American-controlled interim government is to have reconstruction directed by the United Nations. Secretary of State Colin Powell, however, told European officials Thursday in Brussels, Belgium, that the United States will ``play a lead role.''

But Powell promised a U.N. role, although ``the exact nature of that role remains to be seen.''

Europeans have not rejected taking part in a U.S.-led effort, but Burns said they have made clear that "they need some kind of legitimizing U.N. resolution" before they can take part.

With the backing of a loose-knit bipartisan group in the House, Bereuter and Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., are pushing Bush to seek such a U.N. Security Council resolution and are working on nonbinding legislation that would support such a move.

Bereuter acknowledges that the council's refusal to back the war in Iraq has many lawmakers, himself included, skittish about seeking another U.N. resolution. However, he believes that the possibility needs to be fully explored.

"There is a great deal of trepidation about moving back to the U.N.," Bereuter said before heading to Paris to discuss reconstruction with European legislators. "There would have to be pretty clear signals from (council members with veto powers) that something could be agreed upon."

Kind said pressure from Capitol Hill was needed because ``the only thing Congress has been doing is renaming french fries freedom fries.'' He warned of dire consequences if more countries are not included in the postwar effort.

"We can either be seen as a positive force for change and reform and democracy or a malevolent force in the Arab world. Unfortunately we are losing that debate right now,'' he said.

NATO role

Many in Congress and some in the administration are hopeful that NATO eventually will play a role in postwar Iraq that would have the added benefit of reuniting the cross-Atlantic alliance.

Most countries in the alliance, led by Britain and Spain, support the war. But most of the war supporters are new alliance members and relatively small, former communist countries with staunch loyalty to the United States.

Larger European countries, however, bitterly oppose the war. France raised special ire by saying it wanted to lead a European postwar effort to rival American leadership in the world.

"You can't be an ally and a counterweight at the same time," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Others argue that some countries, especially Germany, are making moves to improve relationships, although these countries have been reluctant to discuss a role in Iraq lest they be seen as endorsing a war they oppose.

Germany is playing a major peacekeeping role in Afghanistan right now and there is a chance NATO will take over that job in August, which could be a precursor to a similar role in Iraq.

But some American officials are not ready to make up. The House voted late Thursday to bar companies from countries opposed to the war from taking part in reconstruction - a move opposed by the administration and unlikely to become law.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., told Burns that he fears that there is a strong element in the administration and in Congress who are asking, "What are we going to do to teach the French a lesson? What are we going to do to teach the Germans a lesson?"

Biden says he understands the reaction, but fears that it will undermine reconstruction in Iraq and rupture alliances the United States will need in the future.

"We may be close to biting our nose off to spite our face here if we don't get this straight," he said.

(Contributing: Brian Tumulty, GNS.)