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Iraq: Washington Signals It May Be Open To Broader UN Role

Is Washington signaling a new willingness to compromise and share power with the United Nations in Iraq? Recent remarks by a top U.S. official suggest it may be. But as RFE/RL reports, the debate -- both within the Bush administration as well as at the UN -- has only just begun.

Washington, 29 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. official has publicly broached the idea of sharing power with the United Nations in Iraq -- possibly signaling a new U.S. willingness to compromise on the issue.

The official, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, on 27 August floated the idea of a multinational, UN-approved Iraqi security force commanded by an American. Armitage acknowledged that is was just "one idea being explored" in on-going talks at the UN's New York headquarters.

The comment may signal a shift in thinking by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which so far has insisted that military, economic, and political matters in Iraq remain under the firm control of Washington.

Ted Galen Carpenters is with the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. Carpenter tells RFE/RL: "The comments by Armitage suggest a small movement toward internationalizing the occupation of Iraq, but it's only a small movement. In essence, the U.S. is still asking other countries to contribute more and to do more to support a U.S.-controlled policy. I still believe that most countries are not going to line up pounding on the door to take on that burden."

Armitage's comments could simply be the opening move in what is expected to be a long debate at the UN, where Washington and its key ally Britain are seeking to win more international troops and assistance for Iraq.

Daily attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and last week's bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters, have underscored the need for Washington to seek military contributions in an increasingly dangerous occupation that is costing U.S. taxpayers $4 billion a month.

Speaking yesterday in Baghdad, the U.S. commander of ground forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, told a news conference: "Internationalizing the effort is a worthwhile initiative and will provide a clear display of international support for the mission ongoing in the country and of course, it will have the benefit of putting other countries assisting the United States and Britain and the other 28 that are already here and the Iraqi people in bringing security and stability. I think it would make a difference and we welcome anyone who wants to join this coalition."

But individual countries independently joining the U.S.-led coalition is one thing. Opening up the Iraqi occupation to a UN administration and the participation of other major nations is another.

Diplomats say Washington and London may seek some kind of UN Security Council resolution backing greater international participation by mid-September.

But key nations that could contribute troops to Iraq -- such as France, India, and Germany -- will do so only if Washington gives the UN a significant new role in the country.

Pressure to bring in the UN is coming from various quarters in the U.S., including Democratic and Republican members of Congress as well as the U.S. media.

Fareed Zakaria, editor of "Newsweek" magazine's international edition, says that besides bringing in new military and financial resources, UN involvement in Iraq would lend legitimacy to the U.S.-led occupation.

In an interview this week on public-access television (C-SPAN), Zakaria recommended a "Plan B" for Washington.

"My 'Plan B' is basically: give the United Nations formal authority in Iraq; bring the U.S. operations, both military and civil, under what's called a 'dual hat' that gets you a buy-in from all kinds of countries like India, Turkey, France, Germany, who will then be able to send troops," Zakaria says.

The Bush administration appears at least partly divided over this question. The State Department is seen as wanting to bring in the UN, but the Pentagon's civilian leadership has long opposed sharing power with the international body in Iraq.

Underscoring that opposition, a key Pentagon adviser said yesterday that a "UN administration for Iraq is a bad idea." Richard Perle of the Pentagon's advisory Defense Policy Board made his remarks in an interview with the French newspaper "Le Figaro."

In spite of Armitage's comments, Carpenter says he doesn't expect the Bush administration to offer too much in the way of a compromise at the Security Council.

"It would be a perception of failure on several levels: that the U.S. underestimated the difficulty of the postwar Iraq occupation; that the administration's arrogance in freezing out the United Nations was a mistake; and that the U.S., despite its great power, is not capable of handling some of these situations by itself. All of these admissions would be very, very difficult for the Bush administration to make," Carpenter said.

But if Washington is unlikely to make a major compromise, so too is Paris, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council. France, which led opposition to the Iraq war, now stands as the primary opposition to Anglo-American efforts at the UN.

France yesterday appeared to shoot down Armitage's idea of a UN mandate for a force under U.S. control, saying that would amount to mere political cover for America and could compromise the UN's independence. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said that "a real change in approach" is needed in Baghdad. He called on Washington to hand political power to an Iraqi provisional government and security over to a UN-mandated multilateral force.

Analyst Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy institute, commenting on De Villepin's statements, said, "The French will reject any U.S. proposal which does not give the United Nations direct political and military control of postwar Iraq. Therefore, I do not see the French agreeing to any realistic U.S. proposal at the UN Security Council."

It will become clear in the coming weeks whether Washington decides to open up to the UN or continue to run Iraq on its own.

But despite Pentagon opposition to the UN, Bush may have other motivations to work with the world body.

Recent polls suggest the continuing deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and the mounting costs of occupation could become a political liability for Bush as he seeks re-election next year.