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Grasping Postwar Reality

October 17, 2003

The U.N. Security Council's 15-0 vote Thursday to endorse the U.S. role in Iraq but urge that it end quickly was an exercise in much needed diplomatic pragmatism for the Bush administration.

The White House only days ago considered withdrawing the resolution because of objections from other nations, including France, Germany and Russia. Instead, it wisely listened to those countries and gave some ground. The practical effect is minimal, but the symbolism of a united Security Council is vital to demonstrate that bitterness over the war, though not forgotten, will not be yet another barrier to establishing a safe and secure Iraq.

The Security Council urged nations to provide money and troops to Iraq, just what the U.S. wants. Yet the chances of getting that assistance are slim. Countries that have refused to send troops say they have no immediate plans to reverse course; financially strapped nations say they can't afford to contribute.

Even U.S.-endorsed amendments -- for example, those that call for a greater U.N. role in drafting an Iraqi constitution and specify that the mandate of U.S.-led troops ends with the election of an Iraqi government -- are more symbolic than practical.

The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council could decide to minimize U.N. assistance, although that would be a mistake considering the U.N.'s experience in helping other nations recover from war. And a new government could ask U.S. troops to stay. But the vote gives added international legitimacy to the U.S. occupation and attempts to rebuild Iraq. Nations that have provided troops despite the war's unpopularity can tell their voters that the U.N. has sanctioned a multinational force. Countries contributing funds for Iraqi reconstruction at a conference in Madrid next week also can cite the Security Council action for political cover.

The Bush administration's decision to work with the U.N. reflects the reality of a postwar Iraq far more difficult to pacify and rebuild than Washington had expected. Secretary-General Kofi Annan withdrew many U.N. officials after the Aug. 19 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and has demanded more security before they return.

The Security Council added that "security and stability is essential" also to holding elections and drawing up a constitution. The Security Council asked the Iraqi Governing Council to provide a timetable by Dec. 15 for elections and to draw up a constitution. The U.S. originally resisted any deadline for those important elements in the political process; agreeing to the date was an important concession.

Thursday's vote should encourage Washington to continue seeking international help for Iraq. It's worthwhile to remember that even nations that opposed the war recognize the need for stability in Iraq and the entire Middle East.

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