Britain dismissed as "complete rubbish" talk of a split in the Anglo-American alliance over how much power an imminent interim Iraqi government will have over foreign occupying troops.
British leader Tony Blair said on Tuesday the Iraqis would have final control over foreign troops, but Secretary of State Colin Powell fired back that US forces would stay under US charge and do whatever was necessary to protect themselves.
Faced with a barrage of morning headlines about divisions between London and Washington - who have seldom openly disagreed on Iraq since last year's war - British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said: "It's complete rubbish."
Prescott said London and Washington's statements boiled down to two non-conflicting elements: Iraqis having control over foreign troops after 30 June, except when those troops were attacked.
"The Iraqi government will make all the proper decisions about the security and policies to be pursued in regard to terrorism. Where there's a question of initiative to be taken in regard to counter-terrorism, that will be the proper sovereignty of the Iraqi government," he said.
"But under circumstances which can occur where a terrorist attack takes place and attacks a military force, whether it's the Americans or the British, clearly they will be expected to defend themselves. Nobody doubts that."
That line, however, appeared to fall somewhat short of Washington's more blanket position.
Control over troops
Powell said only the US "would take into account" the Iraqis' view at political and military level.
"Ultimately, however, if it comes down to the United States armed forces protecting themselves or in some way accomplishing their mission in a way that might not be in total consonance with what the Iraqi interim government might want to do at a particular moment in time, US forces remain under US command and will do what is necessary to protect themselves," he said.
Powell (R) said US would consider
Iraqi political, military view
The charged issue of control over troops is crucial to convincing Iraqis - and international sceptics such as France and Russia - that London and Washington are serious about handing back sovereignty to Iraq.
It also touches a US taboo over foreign control of its troops.
Despite bluntly rejecting there was a split, Prescott acknowledged, however, that "interpretations" and "negotiations" on the troops' control issue were continuing around a proposed UN resolution to endorse the interim Iraqi government.
"There's a matter of negotiation and interpretation already under way and until that's concluded I suggest you await your judgments on that," he said.
"He (Blair) has given his judgment properly. He's the commander of our forces, he makes judgments on that for us and quite properly so. I think it is his view that the interpretation being placed on it by the media on this emphasis of difference is complete rubbish."
The proposed UN resolution would allow US-led occupation forces to "take all measures" to keep order and does not contain a specific Iraqi veto clause. But British officials say such an effective veto would be included in an exchange of letters with the interim government and agreed before a UN vote.
Analysts speculated Britain's position may be an attempt to reassure other big world powers - particularly in Europe - about Iraq or a response to calls from some quarters at home for Blair to distance himself from US President George Bush.
"The Iraqi government will make all the proper decisions about the security and policies to be pursued in regard to terrorism. Where there's a question of initiative to be taken in regard to counter-terrorism, that will be the proper sovereignty of the Iraqi government"
British deputy prime minister
Blair's alliance with Bush over Iraq has helped send his popularity ratings tumbling and set him up for a beating in upcoming 30 June local and European elections.
Prescott said despite some speculation Blair might resign, he would run for a fourth term in an election expected in 2005.
"I can tell you for sure that if he decides, and I am sure he will, that he wants to fight the next election, he would have the full support of the party," he said.