Now, after the latest resolution on Iraq, the UN looks set finally to take that more prominent role.
According to the resolution, the UN is to help convene a national conference in Iraq in July, organize national elections, draft a national constitution, and coordinate reconstruction funds. A UN electoral team has already put together an independent election commission.
Much will still depend on security conditions in Iraq. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says there will be no major return of UN staff until security conditions stabilize. But the amount of responsibility assigned the UN marks -- at least on paper -- a return to prominence in Iraq after one of the organization's darkest 12-month periods.
This heightened UN profile is in part due to the U.S. desire to internationalize the reconstruction effort in Iraq following a worsening in conditions this spring.
James Dobbins, an expert on international security at the Rand Corporation, tells RFE/RL that U.S. officials have recognized the costs of nation-building without UN assistance.
"We've largely reversed ourselves on the architecture of the international role there. We were arguing a year ago whether [the UN] had a 'central' role or a 'vital' role. We're now giving them clearly a 'central' role and not arguing about it anymore," Dobbins says.
Dobbins served as the Bush administration's special envoy for Afghanistan and has previously served as U.S. special envoy for Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia. He says the UN has proven better at sustaining the nation-building lessons of the 1990s than U.S. policy-makers.
"We go through these transitions with new administrations. We lose a lot of our institutional memory and we pay a cost for having lost that institutional memory, and the UN doesn't have that problem. It has other problems but it doesn't have that problem. It has made a conscious effort to integrate and learn the lessons of these operations," Dobbins says.
Before the security situation in Iraq further deteriorated this year, some Security Council members had been pressing for a broader UN role in the country. But Annan responded by calling for a more clearly defined, substantive assignment before he could consider that. He also repeatedly cited concerns about security.
The organization suffered its worst-ever terrorist attack last summer in Baghdad when a car bomb destroyed the UN headquarters. The attack killed 19 staff including chief UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Annan's role is essentially to carry out the wishes of member states and strong bodies like the Security Council. But a former top aide to the Secretary-General, Michael Doyle, tells RFE/RL that Annan can assert himself behind the scenes to influence affairs as he did this spring on Iraq.
"The Secretary-General can never be in charge,” Doyle says. “That is, he is the head of the secretariat and he does not have the international clout that member states do. At the same time, he has a big stake in the outcome. He was working very actively behind the scenes to assist countries to discover a viable common ground on which they could form a consensus."
Annan's top troubleshooters are special envoys, but these envoys must also rely on member states to wield influence. UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, for example, had tremendous authority in shaping the transitional administration in Afghanistan. He also played an important -- though smaller -- role in choosing the new Iraqi interim government.
After the selections were announced, Brahimi appealed to Iraqi citizens to support the political process despite its flaws, saying, "I very much hope that [the Iraqi people] will see that even though this government may not reflect everything they had hoped for, it was the best outcome that was possible at this time."
Despite the revived UN-Iraqi relationship, the UN is still partly resented in Iraq because of years of punishing UN sanctions. The UN's oil-for-food program was ultimately responsible for feeding most of the country, but it may also have allowed former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to pocket billions of dollars from illegal oil sales outside the UN system.
An Iraqi paper earlier this year published the names of hundreds of prominent people, including the administrator of the UN program, Benon Sevan, as having received kickbacks. Sevan denies the charge.
Annan has appointed an independent inquiry headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker to investigate charges of UN incompetence and corruption in the program, which was officially phased out earlier this year.