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BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP)-- Secretary of State Colin Powell assured the NATO allies and the European Union Thursday that the Bush administration seeks a partnership with the United Nations for the reconstruction of postwar Iraq.
Seeking to make inroads against European objections to American primacy in any interim military and administrative setup, Powell steered clear of a debate in the 23-nation conference at the NATO headquarters, officials said.
Still, each of the ministers told Powell it was important to have a significant U.N. involvement in postwar Iraq while Powell assured them the administration had made no decisions about the role of the United Nations, a senior U.S. official said.
"This is the beginning of a discussion, the beginning of a dialogue," the official quoted Powell as saying.
The official, who discussed the situation on grounds of anonymity, said Powell told European representatives there would be a U.N. connection, but did not specify how that would work.
"I don't see how we could contribute to the reconstruction without the United Nations playing the key role," said Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel.
On another front where there was far more unity, Powell said the administration would move swiftly to implement a "non-negotiable" roadmap for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. The main goal is the establishment of a Palestinian state.
At the meeting there was "zero discussion" of deploying NATO peacekeepers in Iraq, the official said. However, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson said he felt the allies would be "more than willing" to provide peacekeepers if there is also agreement on a United Nations role in rebuilding Iraq.
"The ministers were ... more than willing to see whether other international organizations like NATO, might have a role in helping" Iraq's reconstruction, he told reporters.
Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, whose country holds the EU presidency, spoke of the need to heal Europe's relations with Washington. "It is of utmost importance to restore -- I would even say reshape our trans-Atlantic relationship" that has been badly bruised by divisions of the Iraq war, he said.
Washington suggested an Iraq peacekeeping role for NATO last year. However, the idea was shelved after French-led objections amid an increasingly acrimonious debate over Iraq that provoked one of the worst splits in alliance history.
However, diplomats suggested that France, and its anti-war allies Germany and Belgium, might accept a NATO peacekeeping operation that would build on the alliance's experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said postwar Iraq "should be handed over as quickly as possible to the Iraqi people."
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was also in Brussels, keen to smooth Moscow's troubled relations with Washington and London.
He told reporters the main task "now before the entire world community is to search together for an exit from the situation."
Palacio said NATO ambassadors could begin an examination of an alliance peacekeeping role next week.
As coalition forces close in on Baghdad, the United States and European nations have been divided over how to shape postwar Iraq.
"In this critical moment, it's very important to have a common vision to see how the future can be constructed," said the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.
The Europeans want the United Nations to take a lead role in rebuilding Iraq early on. However, the United States plans to install an interim American administrator in Baghdad at least in the immediate aftermath of a Saddam fall.
French President Jacques Chirac has opposed giving Britain and the United States a dominant role in rebuilding Iraq, arguing that would legitimize the war.
On the eve of Powell's meetings, Germany said it was important to improve trans-Atlantic relations and France appeared to soften its intense criticism of the war.
Powell has spoken of an international "chapeau" for the rebuilding period in which the United Nations would provide "an endorsement, a recognition for what's being done" to rebuild Iraq after Saddam is ousted.
The Bush administration concedes the United Nations has a role in providing humanitarian relief to Iraqi civilians, but the tougher issue is determining the U.N. role in running Iraq until new and democratically inclined politicians arise.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)