UNITED NATIONS — President Bush rejected calls from France and Germany for a swift transfer of power in Iraq on Tuesday, urging allies to put aside bitter divisions over the U.S.-led war and help lead a massive reconstruction effort.
French President Jacques Chirac challenged Bush by demanding a “realistic timetable” for granting sovereignty.
In the first gathering of world leaders at the General Assembly since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein, Bush was unapologetic about the war and its chaotic aftermath and unyielding on U.S. terms for creating a democratic government.
“This process must unfold according to the needs of Iraqis — neither hurried nor delayed by the wishes of other parties,” Bush said, spurning demands of France and Germany in a replay of the acrimonious year-old debate over Iraq that has shaken old alliances.
Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder listened to Bush speak in the vast hall where historic debates have echoed for more than a half century. Ahmad Chalabi, the president of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, took Iraq’s seat.
Before Chirac took his turn at the microphone, Bush left the chamber, followed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The French president upbraided the United States for having taken a go-it-alone approach in Iraq after the United Nations failed to sanction the war.
“In an open world,” Chirac said, “no one can live in isolation, no one can act alone in the name of all, and no one can accept the anarchy of a society without rules.” France has said it wants power handed over to the Iraqis in a matter of months — a position echoed by Schroeder yesterday.
The debate reverberated from the U.N. and private meetings in New York to Capitol Hill and the presidential campaign trail.
In Washington, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said he thought Bush “lost an opportunity.”
“He came before the international community and he could have made the case for more troops, more resources,” the South Dakota Democrat said. “He didn’t do that. … It was a missed opportunity and that’s very disappointing.”
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, said he was encouraged by Bush’s private meetings with world leaders, including Chirac yesterday and Schroeder scheduled today. “If our alliances were damaged by the Iraq war, let the liberation of Iraq be the reason for repairing and strengthening those alliances,” Hagel said.
Bush and Chirac met face to face in the U.S. Mission near the U.N. after their speeches.
Bush said if he was going to keep 140,000 troops in Iraq and spend $20 billion on reconstruction aid, there must be an “orderly” transfer of power, according to a White House readout of the talks.
Chirac pledged the French “wouldn’t stand in the way” of the U.N. resolution Bush seeks, and he said “France would like to help” in the process.
Bush was very clear in telling Chirac “the premature transfer of sovereignty, which has been the French proposal, is just not in the cards,” a senior administration official said.
The administration also brushed aside a call from Chalabi for increased power for the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, largely handpicked by U.S. authorities. The United States is not prepared to transfer sovereignty to 25 unelected people, the official said.
Chirac told a news conference later that it was impossible to say whether it would take three, six or nine months to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis. Nevertheless, he said France wants the process to begin immediately.
In his speech, Bush spoke broadly about a need for global help and outlined a limited role for the United Nations in writing an Iraqi constitution, training civil servants and overseeing elections. The United States is trying to come up with a U.N. resolution paving the way for other countries to contribute money and troops for Iraq’s reconstruction.
Bush said, “Every young democracy needs the help of friends. Now the nation of Iraq needs and deserves our aid, and all nations of good will should step forward and provide that support.”
While the United States has not found any of the alleged weapons of mass destruction that were cited as justification for the war, Bush said the search continues. “We are now interviewing Iraqi citizens and analyzing records of the old regime, to reveal the full extent of its weapons programs and long campaign of deception.”
Bush was unbending about the U.S. decision to go to war. “Across the world, nations are more secure because an ally of terror has fallen,” he said.
Bush reiterated his belief that all nations must align themselves — either with terrorists or against them.
“There is no neutral ground. All governments that support terror are complicit in a war against civilization,” Bush told the General Assembly, adding that he believes history will judge favorably those nations that fight terror.
Meeting with Spain’s president, Jose Maria Aznar, Bush said, “We’re both convinced, and strongly believe, that our goals in Iraq are the right goals, and we’ll accomplish the goals.”
Beyond helping in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush urged other nations to help stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, to combat AIDS and to stop slavery.