GENEVA -- Secretary of State Colin Powell on Friday rejected as "totally unrealistic" a French timetable for the full transfer of authority in Iraq to local control, starting with the establishment of a provisional government next month.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin outlined the proposals on the eve of a meeting here today involving U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Powell will meet separately with each of his colleagues, including de Villepin, who has been a persistent foe of American policy in Iraq since before the American-led invasion. Given the differences with the views of France and other countries, Powell predicted that the debate will be "spirited."
In an opinion piece in the French newspaper Le Monde, de Villepin wrote that a provisional government should be established in Iraq in a month, a draft constitution by the end of the year and elections next spring.
"It would be delightful if one could do that but one can't do that," Powell told reporters while en route to Switzerland.
The French, in effect, are proposing that "we stop everything we're doing," he said. "We have invested too much to consider such a proposal."
Record as liberator
In comments that appeared to be directed at France, Powell said the United States has a long record as a liberator of countries and not as an occupier.
"We've done a lot of liberation in Europe after other Europeans had occupied parts of Europe," Powell said.
In the discussions here, Powell will defend a U.S. proposal before the Security Council that invites the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to cooperate with the United Nations and U.S. officials in Baghdad to produce "a timetable and program for the drafting of a new constitution for Iraq and for the holding of democratic elections."
It contains no time frame, and it leaves the key decisions in the hands of the Governing Council. The resolution also calls for the creation of a multinational force under a unified U.N. command with an American commander.
Russia and Germany, a rotating member of the Security Council, have joined France in opposing the U.S. draft resolution.
Powell said he believes the draft has the required minimum of nine votes for approval -- assuming there is no veto.
"I think we're pretty far up the ladder," he said.
De Villepin, in his article, wrote, "Today, it is urgent to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people themselves to permit them to fully assume their responsibilities."
He added that continuing on the current path in Iraq runs "the risk of entering into a spiral with no return."
In a Thursday interview with France's TV2 network, a copy of which was made available Friday, Powell said he agrees that sovereignty should be returned to the Iraqi people but only when conditions are ripe.
"To whom do we give it?" he asked. "We have to create a government. We have to create a parliament. We have to put in place a constitution after it's been written. We have to have elections. Nobody wants to turn sovereignty back to the Iraqis as fast as the United States does, President Bush does and I do."
Asked if the United Nations should play a leading role, Powell replied: "I said vital. I don't know what leading means."
Powell said Wednesday in an interview with Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite network, that Iraq would face "total chaos" if the United States surrendered to demands for a hasty U.S. transfer of authority to Iraqi control.