Pressured by signs of fatigue and dissent among US soldiers fighting a guerrilla war in Iraq, and disappointed by allies' reluctance to join what many see as an occupation army, the US may be forced to cede some control over Iraq's future to governments who disagreed with the war.
That is likely to be the price of coaxing major nations into an Iraqi force through the United Nations, a process Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday he was discussing with the UN and allies. "The situation in Iraq is highly complicated and we are interested in a real, strategic trans-Atlantic debate," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who met with Mr. Powell in Washington, signaling the European desire to help shape events in Iraq.
Faced with the need to keep some 150,000 soldiers in Iraq to hold the lid on a deteriorating security situation, the US has asked about 80 countries to contribute troops.
So far, the US has cobbled together a multinational force that will total 9,200 troops from about 30 countries when it deploys fully in September.
But US hopes of further re- inforcing its force with foreign troops suffered a blow this week when India decided against sending 17,000 men, in the absence of a UN mandate. And apart from Britain, which has deployed around 12,000 soldiers in Iraq, and Italy, there is little enthusiasm in Europe for the idea - at least in countries able to pay for their deployments rather than ask the US to cover the costs.
France and Germany have both said that if they were asked to send forces, they would not unless the UN were given a greater role in setting Iraq's course. In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said Wednesday he could not, for now, envisage the alliance doing more than help a Polish battalion with logistics, intelligence, and communications.
Even the politically embarrassing step of going to the UN would not necessarily ease the Pentagon's looming manpower problem. The countries with suitable troops for an extended peacekeeping operation in Iraq, such as Germany and France, have stretched their armies in other parts of the world.
The US wants assistance in order to relieve the pressure on American soldiers, some of whom have begun to grumble publicly about their lengthening tours of duty as they lose several comrades a week in an operation costing $3.9 billion a month.
Of the countries helping, however, only Poland, Spain, Ukraine, and Holland are contributing more than 1,000 men each. The rest of the contingent is made up of a few hundred Danes and Italians, along with an assortment of Macedonians, Latvians, Nicaraguans, Azerbaijanis and troops from other countries known more for a desire to curry favor with the US than for the professionalism of their forces.
"The difficulty is that the force requirements are so substantial that there are very few countries that could make a meaningful contribution," says Jonathan Stevenson, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "Europeans are the most desirable because they are the most competent."
As doubts grow about the justification for the war, many European voters are skeptical about the prospect of putting their own soldiers at risk to defend American troops whom they do not believe should be in Iraq.
They and their governments might be persuaded to lend a hand, however, if they were given more of a say in how Iraq is run, some analysts suggest.
"Any increase above the small number (of foreign troops) so far will require the US to share responsibilities just as it shares the costs and burdens," says James Dobbins, a former US diplomat with experience in nation-building from Somalia to the Balkans.
That would mean giving the United Nations a greater role in directing Iraq's political future while relying more on NATO for military assistance, he suggests.
The US administration "may not have to eat humble pie, but they will have to at least nibble on a couple of humble crackers," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Until Wednesday, US officials had not shown many signs they were ready to take that step, listening to advice from abroad on how to ensure security, build a democracy, and reconstruct Iraq's economy. Other countries might not share US views on privatization or Iraq's oil industry.
"But as things become more dire, with US troops losing their lives, morale falling and being physically overstretched, it may acquire more currency in the US administration," says Mr. Stevenson. "The Bush administration still feels punitive towards the powers that opposed it and towards the UN itself, but that attitude is not immutable."
At the heart of the expected wrangling over who does what in Iraq will be the question of how much influence the US will cede to other nations and to the UN.
"There is a difficult tension between control and participation," says Mr. Dobbins, who now works at the RAND Corp. think tank. "This administration tends to be more on the control side of the equation than the participation side, but events suggest we'll have to move along the con- tinuum and the quicker the better, because the messier things get on the ground, the less inclined others are to get involved."
The US has made some nods in the direction of the United Nations. UN Security Council 1483, adopted in May, gives the UN envoy in Baghdad, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, vague authority to "work intensively" with occupation powers to "facilitate a process leading to an internationally recognized representative government." A UN team is due to visit Iraq next month to lay the groundwork for elections slated for next year.
On the military side, however, it is unclear how much America's European allies could really help. Poland and Ukraine might be persuaded to send more men, but they have asked the US to pay for efforts they are already making.
Germany, with 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and the Horn of Africa, is not in a position to contribute significantly to a new force in Iraq, according to Burkhard Schmitt, a military analyst at the European Union's Institute for Security Studies in Paris. "Already Germany is having tremendous problems with rotating its men," says Mr. Schmitt. "They've come to their limits."
France might be able to spare troops, despite being heavily involved in Africa. But given bad blood, "it would be a very big political deal," Schmitt says. "There would have to be an extremely strong US gesture to France."