London (CNSNews.com) - U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with NATO and European Union leaders Thursday in an attempt to patch up differences and work towards an agreement on the nature of a post-war Iraqi government.
A key issue yet to be decided is whether the United States or the United Nations will take the lead role after Saddam Hussein is removed from power.
After meeting with 23 NATO and EU countries, Powell said that the U.N. would be given responsibilities after the war but that the U.S.-led coalition would be at the forefront of reconstruction.
While no firm agreements came out of Thursday's meeting, diplomats agreed that the talks were constructive.
"We are still examining the proper role for the United Nations," Powell told reporters at a news conference after the talks. "I am not surprised that there is not consensus yet because the debate and discussion has just begun. We had a healthy dialogue.
"One always has to remember that it was a coalition that came together and took on this difficult mission," he said. "I think the coalition has to play the leading role in determining the way forward. This is not to say that we have shut others out."
Powell's view conflicts with that of several European countries, including coalition member Britain, who have been asking for a lead U.N. role in Iraq.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged that differences of opinion existed but said: "I believe those differences are not insurmountable.
"As soon as possible, Iraq should not be run either by the coalition or the U.N., but by the Iraqis," he said.
The Bush administration has called for the U.N. role to be limited to humanitarian aid, while the allies would be responsible for setting up an interim government.
NATO Secretary General Lord George Robinson tried to play down talk of significant transatlantic rifts in advance of the meeting.
"Expressions such as 'mending fences' or 'defusing tension' have been used in the run-up to today's meetings at NATO. 'Continuity' and 'cooperation' are better words," he said.
"There may have been strains, but there have never been any irreconcilable differences among us," Robinson stated.
"There was broad agreement that the conflict in Iraq should be brought to an end as quickly as possible, that civilian casualties be minimized and that aid should be delivered to the people of Iraq as a matter of urgency," he said.
After the meeting, Robinson said the talks "reconfirmed the central role of the transatlantic partnership."
Julie Smith, head of the European Program at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, said that the chances of the U.N. taking the lead in Iraq will increase as the war goes on.
Smith said that arguments for U.S. control over a post-war Iraq will weaken if there is a prolonged siege of Baghdad.
"What ends up being decided may very well depend on the length of the war," she said.
"The sooner military action is over, the easier it will be for the United States to say, 'We're taking the lead,'" she said.
But political and financial considerations may also play a part in the construction of a post-Saddam government. In particular, U.N. backing for an interim administration is seen as key for Blair, one of U.S. President George W. Bush's closest allies.
Blair has come under significant pressure at home to include the United Nations in decision-making about Iraq.
"From the British perspective, there's a real need for the U.N. to take the lead," Smith said.
The cost of rebuilding the country could be another factor pushing the United States towards some type of international agreement.
"They may be able to persuade some countries to support rebuilding even though they didn't support the war, for example, by emphasizing humanitarian aid," she said.
Powell traveled to Brussels despite a complaint lodged against him and other members of the first Bush administration under Belgium's wide-ranging war crimes law. Belgian lawmakers are in the process of amending the law to limit suits against officials from democratic countries.
Earlier on his trip, Powell stopped in Belgrade and Ankara, where he persuaded the Turkish government to allow shipments of food, water and fuel - but not weapons - to U.S. forces in northern Iraq.
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