The stronger the UN's role in Iraq, the better

For someone who has lived in Iraq, it is difficult to understand the Bush administration's strong opposition to a central United Nations role in the political reconstruction of that country, even as it pushes for a UN resolution to involve that body in some aspects of rebuilding.

The lasting success of whatever structure is put in place in post-war Iraq will depend on the degree to which such a structure is seen, both internally and externally, as legitimate - one broadly accepted as representing Iraqi wishes. Given Iraq's history of imposed regimes, the achievement by a new government of such legitimacy under a US-led reconstruction will be especially difficult.

From my years as public affairs officer at the US Embassy in Baghdad - from 1951 to 1955 - during the monarchy, and my contacts with Iraqi friends since, three relevant currents of Iraqi political thought stick in my mind. I doubt that those currents have totally faded in the years since the monarchy fell in 1958.

First: As a result of Iraq's modern history, a deep cynicism exists toward any political structure. Under the Ottomans, the three provinces of Mesopotamia were exploited by governors sent from Constantinople. Iraqis had little say in their governance. Following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British established a monarchy - placing on the throne a king from the Arabian peninsula - under a League of Nations mandate.

The monarchy, seen as an "imposed" regime, never gained broad acceptance; it was kept in place by British power and the political machinations of the group of Arabs who came in with the British. The trappings of democracy existed through "elections" that were carefully managed; in some instances opponents of the regime were put in jail until the elections were over. When a cabinet changed, Baghdadis in the coffee houses used to debate whether the new list came from the British or the American Embassy.

Second: The Arab majority in Iraq felt very much part of a wider Arab nation. They strongly opposed - and their military forces fought - the creation of Israel. Later, as American influence grew in the Middle East, the Eisenhower administration's push to form the Baghdad Pact with Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, and Britain was seen as an effort to wean Baghdad from close Arab ties. Resentment of the pact involving Britain and Turkey was certainly a factor in the overthrow of the monarchy. Any efforts to improve ties between Iraq and Israel by a new regime identified with the US would almost certainly awaken similar resentment.

Third: Even impressive economic development did not erase political factors. Iraq, under the monarchy, had an excellent development program, guided by a board that included two highly qualified foreign engineers, one British and one American. Under the program, major dams were constructed on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and large areas opened for agriculture. Yet skepticism about the work of the board never faded. One Iraqi newspaper editor, ridiculing the idea that major dams were being built in the north, insisted that the development program was building barracks for British soldiers to reoccupy the country. One of the first targets of the mobs during the revolution of 1958 was the office of the Iraq Development Board.

Washington policymakers may believe rebuilding Iraq's government in a friendly, democratic mold may be less complicated without a significant UN presence. In that belief, they run the risk that, over time, a regime clearly seen as a US and British creation will encounter the same undercurrents of resentment that have plagued and undermined past "imposed" regimes. They reject the advantages of an international umbrella in the postwar period.

Two studies on postwar Iraq - recently released by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University - emphasize the importance of international involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq. The role of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN representative who helped craft the Afghan Interim Authority is specifically mentioned. As the UN Security Council now debates Iraq's future, in light of Iraq's history, the US would be well advised to consider this model.

David D. Newsom, former US ambassador to Libya, Indonesia, and the Philippines, is a senior fellow at the Miller Center of the University of Virginia.

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