U.N. role in postwar Iraq focus of Bush-Blair talks

Posted: April 07, 2003

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — A two-day summit this week between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair will focus on the progress of the war in Iraq, humanitarian-relief efforts, and the United Nations' role in reconstructing the Persian Gulf state.

The visit to Northern Ireland, which has provoked a mix of reactions from political leaders and residents here, may also provide a critical boost to this province's stalled peace process.

One key part of the ambitious agenda for the summit today and tomorrow - the third between the two leaders in as many weeks, and the second since the Iraq war began - is resolving differences over U.N. involvement in postwar Iraq.

Blair has sought a larger role for the deeply fractured international body, which is still smarting from last month's diplomatic failure on the eve of war. But Bush has been unwilling to commit to anything more than a short-term humanitarian role.

Yesterday, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, appearing on CBS's Face the Nation, said the United Nations' central role after the war in Kosovo is "not a model we want to follow, of a sort of permanent international administration."

He said it would probably take at least six months for coalition forces to set up a new Iraqi government once they take full control of the country.

"I think the right goal is to move as quickly as we can . . . to a government that is - if I could paraphrase Abraham Lincoln - of the Iraqis, by the Iraqis, for the Iraqis," he said. "Not to make them a colonial administration or a U.N. administration, or run in any way by foreigners."

The summit also will likely touch on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the promised release of a U.S. road map to a two-state Middle East peace.

Blair, facing domestic criticism of Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq, has pushed Bush to release the road map as a way to achieve a broader regional peace. Bush has said the plan would be presented after Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, names his cabinet, which he must do before the end of the month.

After two bilateral sessions at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast, Bush and Blair will be joined tomorrow for talks by Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. After that meeting, the three leaders will meet with Northern Irish leaders.

It's understood here, though, that Northern Ireland's peace process will play second or even third fiddle to other topics in the summit.

"Well, first of all, there's a lot of concern in Ireland that there is a war summit being held here; there's a lot of opposition to [the Iraq war] in Ireland," Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said yesterday when asked about his hopes for the summit.

But "at the same time," he added, "Sinn Fein clearly recognizes the very positive role of this [Bush] administration and Irish Americans" in the peace process. "Let's hope the contradictions can be smoothed out."

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader David Trimble acknowledged on BBC Radio: "This is essentially a meeting on Iraq."

Even so, as an opinion piece in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph noted, "who would have believed, in their wildest dreams, that President George W. Bush would find time to visit Northern Ireland in the middle of war in Iraq?"

Although Northern Ireland will observe the fifth anniversary of its hard-won and historic 1998 peace agreement on Thursday, disagreements, mainly between the IRA-allied Sinn Fein and pro-British unionists, have kept it from being fully and permanently implemented.

The crown jewel of the agreement - an elected assembly that equally distributes power between the province's Protestants and Catholics - is suspended, for the fourth time. Britain, which still controls the six-county province, last suspended the assembly Oct. 14 and on three prior occasions rather than have it collapsed by the UUP and Trimble, who have threatened to walk out until the IRA demonstrates it has destroyed its hundreds of tons of illegal and hidden weapons.

In recent weeks, there have been tantalizing hints by British reporters, quoting unnamed IRA sources, that the republican army may be on the verge of a major announcement that its decades-long "armed struggle" against British control in Northern Ireland is finally at an end.

Addressing Sinn Fein's annual conference in Dublin at the end of last month, Adams told party members that "our strategy, and Mr. Trimble knows this, is about bringing an end to physical force republicanism."

"So can I envisage a future without the IRA?" he said. "The answer is yes."

The trick is that full IRA disarmament may depend on key aspects of the 1998 peace agreement being put in place. Sinn Fein wants more control of the makeup of the province's police force, which is Protestant-dominated.

Ulster republicans also want some form of amnesty for IRA members on the run and want to limit Trimble's and the UUP's power to close down the assembly.

Contact staff writer Fawn Vrazo at 215-854-2405 or fvrazo@phillynews.com

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