The wrangling over what role the United Nations should play in postwar Iraq sounds in many ways like the prewar debate over the use of force: Claims abound that the United States is arrogantly forging ahead on its own or Security Council countries are cynically protecting national interests.
The difference now is that Saddam Hussein is gone and American power has prevailed.
How the US and the countries that opposed war respond in this new climate will determine the extent of international involvement in Iraq's reconstruction. And it will provide a hint of the way ahead for international cooperation in the post-Iraq-war era.
Nations that are intent on preserving a pivotal role for the UN Security Council in international affairs could unwittingly prompt the withering of that role if they block action on Iraq to make a point, experts say. But at the same time, the US could find itself paying more of the postwar costs than it cares to - not only in strict financial terms but also in political terms in a volatile region.
"Countries like France and Russia are reluctant to relinquish whatever degree of leverage their seat on the Security Council gives them in terms of the future arbitration of Iraq, but it's a position that could backfire if they take it too far," says Edward Luck, a UN specialist at Columbia University in New York.
Not only do countries that hold up UN action on Iraq "risk putting themselves on the wrong side of the peace," he adds, but "if they insist the Council be a difficult place for the US to work, they're only going to guarantee it a very marginal role" in international security.
Still, with the Security Council beginning to take up a variety of thorny issues on Iraq this week that date back as far as the first Gulf War, the US has a keen interest in seeing the UN's relationship with postwar Iraq sorted out. That is especially true if the Bush administration is intent on seeing a relatively rapid exit of costly US forces from Iraq, as some officials are advocating.
"It's very much in our national interest not only to share the financial costs [of rebuilding Iraq], which will be enormous, but the political costs as well," says Paul Saunders, director of the Nixon Center, a Washington public- policy institute. "If six months from now the situation is still unsettled, it would be to our advantage not to be the only ones resented for that."
The Council must deal with a list of sanctions and other binds the UN placed on Iraq over the course of more than a decade. The tangle of programs on the books includes:
• The UN-administered oil-for-food program, which has overseen sales of Iraqi oil for food, medicine, and other supplies for the past half decade.
• The weapons-inspections program, which legally would have to certify that Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction before economic sanctions could be lifted.
• An arms embargo dating from the Gulf War.
President Bush last week called for the UN to speedily lift the sanctions. The US claims the sanctions were imposed on the Mr. Hussein's regime, which no longer exists, but other countries are in effect responding, "Not so fast." France and Russia, which have outstanding contracts under the oil-for-food program and billions of dollars in loans out to Iraq, have a financial interest in seeing that the slate is not simply wiped clean.
Security Council members who opposed the use of force without UN backing are also anxious that their actions not be seen as granting legitimacy to the war.
At the same time Britain, the closest US ally in the war and a stalwart supporter of the American position on the Security Council, is signaling it will stick to its demands that the postwar rebuilding process include the "vital role" for the UN that Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly endorsed.
Before Tuesday's return of UN weapons inspector Hans Blix to the Security Council, British officials said they favor some "independent" element to the ongoing search for weapons of mass destruction. US officials, particularly at the Pentagon, have made it clear they have no desire to see a return of Mr. Blix's inspectors.
"Someone has to verify that there has been disarmament in order for sanctions to be lifted, and if it's going to be done to the satisfaction of others" besides the US, "there will have to be [a UN inspectors] lead in this," says William Durch, an expert in international peacekeeping at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.
Despite divisions on the Security Council that remain as deep as during the prewar debate, all members - including the US - are under domestic pressure to avoid a repeat of the first round's failures. "After the failure of the international process leading up to the war, there's intense pressure for both sides to come together, because publics by and large want the international system to work," says Saunders.
For that reason Mr. Durch says he expects "some kind of grand bargain to be struck" after mostly behind-the-scenes debates.