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 in Geneva 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 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 said.
The French, in effect, are proposing "we stop everything we're doing," he said. "We have invested too much to consider such a proposal."
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 Geneva discussions, 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, Powell said he agrees 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."