If Washington gets its way, the US Marines' handover of a swath of central Iraq to a Polish-led multinational contingent yesterday will be the first of many such ceremonies.
But US troops in Iraq shouldn't start packing yet. As US diplomats begin presenting allies with a new UN resolution designed to attract more countries into an international security force in Iraq, they face an uphill task.
Potential contributors of larger numbers of troops trained for conditions in Iraq, such as India and Turkey, are nervous about sending their soldiers into an increasingly ugly situation. And a new UN Security Council resolution will probably require Washington to give up significant control over political developments in Iraq.
"The key [to bringing more nations into the forces in Iraq] is whether responsibility for the future of Iraq lies in American hands or in UN hands," says Guillaume Parmentier, head of the French Center on the United States, a think tank in Paris. "Before talking about sending troops, we have to talk about Iraq's future."
Pressed by the rising financial and human costs of its occupation of Iraq, Washington will be forced by its need for more international support to "go a long way down the line to giving countries that provide contingents a say in Iraqi affairs," adds Charles Heyman, an analyst with "Jane's World Armies" in London.
The exact wording of the new UN resolution that President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have decided to push forward is not yet known. But it is likely to enhance the UN presence in Iraq beyond the "vital" role that an earlier resolution gave the international body, in return for a UN mandate legitimizing the US-led occupation and authorizing member states to support it.
Washington's decision to turn to the United Nations for help, after months of snubbing the organization that refused to endorse the US invasion of Iraq, "is a tacit admission that we don't have the forces there to get the job done," Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said yesterday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
A number of Congressional hearings on Iraq are planned, and members of both parties returning from an August recess are reporting an unease among the public over Iraq and the lack of international burden-sharing. A Congressional Budget Office report Tuesday said the costs of maintaining a US force two-thirds the current size could run to $19 billion a year.
"Every month that goes by without more help from our friends and allies means billions more taxpayers' dollars spent on our occupation of Iraq, and, most sadly, more grieving American families," said Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia Tuesday.
So far 30 countries have contributed or pledged troops to support the 160,000 American and British forces in Iraq, but most of them have sent only a few hundred men each, totaling around 10,000 soldiers.
"The only way to have security is to have large numbers of troops on the ground," says Mr. Heyman, a former British army officer. "You need twice as many men as you have now, lightly armed, well trained, and capable of conducting what might be a low-intensity counter-insurgency."
One country capable of providing large numbers of such troops, India, decided in July against sending the 17,000 men the US had asked for, in the absence of a UN mandate.
Turkey is pondering contributing as many as 10,000 soldiers - particularly welcome because of their Muslim background that could ease their way in Iraq - but Turkish Premier Tayyip Erdogan told the Italian daily Repubblica yesterday that "We would like to see the stabilization force formed with a decision from the United Nations or NATO."
That would make a Turkish contribution more palatable to a public generally opposed to the plan. "I think the majority of Turks are uneasy with the idea," says Sedat Ergin, the Ankara bureau chief of the Hurriyet daily.
"The picture everyone sees from abroad is one of chaos and anarchy, so sending troops to Iraq is a source of tension."
STILL unresolved, however, is the question of who would pay for such troops. The multinational force that US planners envisage would not be a United Nations peacekeeping contingent of "Blue Helmets," paid for by the UN.
It's expected to be more like the UN mandated, NATO organized force in Kosovo, under a unified US command.
That would probably mean that the US would have to pay poor countries such as India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh for their help, just as it is paying for Poland's 2,300 man contingent.
Some UN members, especially those hostile to the war, could ask a high political price for a new Security Council resolution, analysts suggest.
Though France "does not want to gloat" over the difficulties in which the US finds itself, says Mr. Parmentier, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin made it clear last week that Paris is seeking a radical change in direction from Washington.
"It is time to advance resolutely within the logic of sovereignty for Iraq," he told a meeting of his country's ambassadors in Paris. "It is not enough to deploy more troops, more technical or financial means. A real change in approach is required.
"It is essential that a genuine provisional government be put in place, whose legitimacy will be reinforced by the United Nations," he went on. "For our country, the arrangements that are finally made cannot be simply the enlargement or adjustment of the current occupation forces. It is a question of putting in place a genuine international force under a UN Security Council mandate."
This appears to be considerably more than US policymakers have in mind. The new resolution "will be an elaboration ... rather than a redirection or a departure of where we were before," a State Department official said yesterday.
While skepticism remains strong in some quarters of the White House, the dominant view nonetheless seems to be that the US can get two things it wants - a UN mandate while retaining overall military command - at relatively little cost.
US officials in Baghdad say they have no plans to install a sovereign Iraqi government until after elections scheduled for late next year. In the meantime, a US-appointed Governing Council will run the country, in consultation with occupation forces.
• Staff writers Howard LaFranchi in Washington and Ilene R. Prusher in Baghdad contributed to this report.