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Act Now to Bring In U.N.

September 12, 2003

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's Saturday trip to Geneva should be a key moment for the United States to broaden United Nations involvement in the postwar rebuilding of Iraq. But that will occur only if President Bush gives Powell the authority and backing to reach a real compromise with the European allies and Russia on a new U.N. resolution on Iraq.

With 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq facing up to 15 attacks a day and National Guard deployments there extended to a year, the U.S. military is spread dangerously thin. Bush's call Sunday for a U.N. resolution was an acknowledgment that the U.S. cannot go it alone, and he said Wednesday he was "open for suggestions." Washington needs the U.N. involved in Iraq so it can try to get other nations involved.

The European allies -- committed elsewhere, including the Balkans and Afghanistan -- can't offer many ground forces. Finances are tight everywhere, from Japan to Germany. Pakistan may be too internally volatile to send troops on America's behalf. But a U.N. resolution would let nations such as Turkey, with a significant Muslim population, send major peacekeeping contingents. Though the European allies indicate they will accept U.S. command over all military forces in Iraq -- a key Bush demand -- France and Germany insist that a new U.N. special envoy be empowered to draw up a timetable with the Iraqi Governing Council and U.S. authorities to restore Iraqi sovereignty. The administration, however, wants L. Paul Bremer III, its civilian administrator, to keep the final say over political affairs in Iraq.

The administration should be flexible on this issue because the sooner Iraq is governed by Iraqis, the faster the U.S. and its forces can finish their mission and leave. Having an independent U.N. envoy also could diminish the U.S. profile as an occupier -- a role that incites Islamic extremists. The U.S. could protect its interests and sway events in Iraq by working behind the scenes with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

None of this will get far, though, if top Bush officials like Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld don't restrain their belligerence. Rumsfeld said Wednesday he expected few nations to provide more troops. He spun the push for a U.N. resolution not as a major Bush policy shift but just as an effort to "provide some countries with a feeling that [Iraq's rebuilding] was more of an international activity that they were engaged in...."

Sorry, Mr. Secretary, but the U.S. desperately does need help on Iraq, and there are billions of dollars of reasons why. A replay of the State Department fight for multilaterialism versus the Pentagon's unilateralist reluctance to see more foreign troops deployed is a recipe for more chaos in Iraq. It may make Bush officials grit their teeth, but the U.N. help is indispensible.

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