Bush, Blair Vow 'Vital' U.N. Role in Postwar Iraq

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President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday pledged to give the United Nations a "vital role" in postwar Iraq and vowed to cede control of the oil-rich country to its citizens as soon as possible.

The president insisted that the United States will not be heavy-handed in administering postwar Iraq and that the "Iraqi people are capable, talented and will be successful in running their own government."

Mr. Bush also lashed out at European critics who questioned his commitment to seeking U.N. assistance in postwar efforts."Evidently, there's some skepticism here in Europe about whether or not I mean what I say," Mr. Bush said at a news conference with Mr. Blair. "A vital role for the United Nations means a vital role for the United Nations."

As Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair met, the leaders of Russia, France and Germany announced plans to convene later this week in St. Petersburg, where, a Western diplomat said, they are expected to discuss ways to use the United Nations to limit U.S. influence on Iraq's future.

French President Jacques Chirac, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder opposed the war but seek significant roles in shaping Iraq's fate after the fighting ends. Russia and France are interested in oil contracts, and Russia seeks the repayment of billions of dollars in debt owed by Saddam Hussein's government.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday canceled plans to join the trio. He did not give any explanation for the cancellation, and some U.N. diplomats speculated that he wanted to avoid the appearance of siding with the countries that led the opposition to the war.

In Northern Ireland, the U.S. and British leaders released a joint statement pledging to work "with the United Nations and other international institutions" in postwar reconstruction. But they did not define the world body's role.

"The United Nations has a vital role to play in the reconstruction of Iraq," the statement said. "We welcome the efforts of U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations in providing immediate assistance to the people of Iraq."

When pressed on details of the U.N. role, Mr. Bush said it can provide humanitarian assistance, raise money and make suggestions about the makeup of the interim authority.

Annan spokesman Fred Eckhard said yesterday that it was still not clear what the coalition will ask of the world body.

"It would be in everyone's best interest if the international community were brought to play in the establishment" of a postwar government or authority in Iraq, he said.

Although Washington, at the urging of London, has warmed slightly to assigning the United Nations a part in postwar measures, disagreements remain.

Mr. Blair chafed at press reports that he favors a larger U.N. role than does Mr. Bush, who wants the United States and Britain to play the lead roles.

"This new Iraq that will emerge is not to be run either by us or, indeed, by the U.N. - that is a false choice," the prime minister told reporters in the Throne Room of Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast. "It will run by the Iraqi people."

Mr. Blair said he didn't want to "get into some battle about, you know, words of the precise role here or there" of the United Nations.

"There is no reason whatever why we need to go back into the wrangles we had over, you know, the so-called second resolution," he added, referring to the failed U. …