UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Security Council gave resounding approval Tuesday to a resolution endorsing the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq's new government by the end of June. President Bush said the measure will set the stage for democracy in Iraq and be a "catalyst for change" in the Middle East.
The unanimous 15-0 vote came after a last-minute compromise allowed France and Germany to drop their objections to the U.S.-British resolution, which underwent four revisions over two weeks of tough negotiations. Diplomats on the council, which was deeply divided over going to war against Iraq, welcomed the Americans' flexibility.
The compromise gives Iraqi leaders control over the activities of their own fledgling security forces and a say on "sensitive offensive operations" by the U.S.-led multinational force -- such as the controversial siege of Fallujah. But the measure stops short of granting the Iraqis a veto over major U.S.-led military operations as France and Germany wanted.
France's U.N. ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said, however, that "France cannot imagine that the multinational force would go against the opinion of Iraq's sovereign government."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the vote shows the council's willingness to come together after last year's divisions to help the Iraqi people "take charge of their own political destiny."
"Obviously we are not there yet. Free and fair elections ... will be a historic milestone," he said, but security must improve for voting to take place by January 2005.
The resolution spells out the powers and the limitations of the new interim Iraqi government that will assume power on June 30, some 14 months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government. It authorizes the multinational force to remain in Iraq to help ensure security but gives the Iraqi government the right to ask the force to leave at any time.
In the resolution, the Americans agreed that the mandate for the multinational force will expire "upon the completion of the political process" with constitutional elections by the end of 2005, or earlier if the Iraqis so request.
New Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi indicated in a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell that the force will remain at least until an elected transitional government takes power early next year.
Bush claimed victory even before the vote, telling reporters at the Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga., that unanimous approval would tell the world that the council nations "are interested in working together to make sure Iraq is free, peaceful and democratic."
"These nations understand that a free Iraq will serve as a catalyst for change in the broader Middle East, which is an important part of winning the war on terror," Bush said.
Despite the vote, Bush lowered expectations of gaining other countries' military support -- one of the original hopes behind the resolution. Four members of the Group of Eight summit -- France, Germany, Russia and Canada -- have said they won't send troops to take the burden off the 138,000 American soldiers and the 24,000 troops from coalition partners.
Nevertheless, the adoption of the resolution will likely buy time for the new Iraqi government, boosting its international stature as it struggles to win acceptance and cope with a security crisis at home.
The interim government -- put together by a U.N. envoy, the Americans and their Iraqi allies -- hopes the vote will give it a legitimacy that eluded its predecessor, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. That legitimacy would put it in a better position to curry support among fellow Arab regimes and seek economic help from abroad.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, speaking in New York at the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted it would have a "positive impact" on security by removing the perception of the U.S.-led multinational force as an occupying power.
"We have done our part and I believe the international community has done its part today," said Feisel Istrabadi, legal adviser to Iraq's Foreign Ministry who represented Iraq at the council meeting. "The Iraqis are committed to the rebuilding of their country and further committed that tyranny again will not again revisit them. We would welcome the international community's help."
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said many French ideas were incorporated in the final text though Paris would have liked a clearer definition of the relationship between the new Iraqi government and the U.S.-led force.
However, Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer, meeting in Washington with Powell, brushed off any suggestion that there might be disagreement between U.S. and Iraqi commanders.
"We are working together," al-Yawer told reporters. "These people are in our country to help us."
He added: "We have to think proactive. We cannot afford to be pessimistic."
In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said he hopes "that now there will finally be a stabilization of the security situation in Iraq."
France and Germany had been among the sharpest critics in the Security Council of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq.
On Tuesday, Barnier said that during the negotiations on the resolution "there was a real dialogue for the first time in this affair."
"The Americans clearly understood, after months and months of military operations, that there was no way out by arms, by military operations in Iraq," the foreign minister said.
"Washington understood that we have to get out of this tragedy by the high road."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the vote "an important milestone for the new Iraq."
"We all now want to put the divisions of the past behind us and unite behind the vision of a modern democratic and stable Iraq that will be a force for good not just for the Iraqi people themselves but for the whole of the region and therefore the wider world," Blair said in Sea Island.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, called the U.N. vote "a major step forward."
Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Alexander Konuzin, said the situation in Iraq "remains a bleeding wound in the Middle East and in world politics." He stressed that "only time will tell whether adoption of this resolution will help achieve a turnaround."
"Much here will depend on whether the Iraqis themselves sense a real transition from a military occupation to a restoration of sovereignty," Konuzin said.
U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, who will become U.S. ambassador to Iraq after the handover of power, said the unanimous vote was "a vivid demonstration" of broad international support for "a federal, democratic, pluralist and unified Iraq in which there is full respect for political and human rights."
China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya said "Iraqis yearn for a new life under restored sovereignty" and the resolution "will usher in a historic turning point in the Iraqi political process."