US seeks global aid for Iraq

Goals now include a UN election role, debt relief, and peacekeepers.

With the US-led transition in Iraq facing growing troubles on the ground, the United States is pressing for more international help on several key fronts.

Taken together, the moves signal America's refocus on an international approach to an era-defining reconstruction project. Among the recent developments:

• The US is seeking the United Nations' return to Iraq, a year after the rancorous battle that left the US at odds with much of the world. Now, the US wants the UN to help resolve a flaring debate in the country over how the provisional government will be selected. On Monday, the UN signaled willingness to send experts to Baghdad to evaluate the climate for elections, which Iraq's Shiite majority is demanding.

• The White House is sending envoy James Baker to the Gulf to continue his global pursuit of relief for Iraq's crushing international debt.

• With the White House considering an about-face in its ban on antiwar countries participating in Iraq's big reconstruction contracts, talk is growing of NATO playing a significant peacekeeping role in Iraq once the US occupation ends.

While some suspicion of US motives remains, global leaders beginning with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan agree that success in Iraq is in the international community's interest.

"The stability of Iraq should be everyone's business," Mr. Annan said after meetings Monday in New York with Iraqi leaders and occupation officials, including Iraq's American governor, Paul Bremer. "We have an opportunity to work together to try and move forward in a process that the [UN Security] Council and all of us have believed in."

Although Annan stopped short of an outright "yes" to a US and Iraqi request that the UN send elections experts to Iraq to study the feasibility of elections, an affirmative decision is not expected to tarry, given the urgency on the ground.

Rally for direct elections

In Baghdad on Monday, an estimated 100,000 Shiites took to the streets in a peaceful demonstration of support for direct elections. They object to the complex provincial caucus system the US has approved.

Iraq's Shiites largely back the position of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the influential Muslim leader who continues to hold out for direct elections. Occupation authorities, and indeed a majority of Iraq's US-named Governing Council, argue that the few months remaining until a planned June 30 turnover do not allow for organizing elections.

Mr. Sistani originally interpreted signals from Secretary-General Annan that elections could not be organized on such short notice as a mere response to American pressure. But more recently, the revered cleric has suggested he would listen to a UN recommendation on the issue - leading to intense occupation pressure on Annan to agree to dispatch a technical team.

The stalemate over the means of selecting a new government is not the only issue pressuring the US to seek more international help in Iraq. The US continues to look for ways to draw down its force levels in Iraq once a new government takes charge, and that is prompting warmer relations with key countries that opposed the war - for example, France and Germany.

The shift to international involvement reflects not so much an about-face in the US approach to Iraq as a reemphasis on the multilateral engagement the Bush administration had hoped to orchestrate all along, some experts say.

"The administration's approach on Iraq, as on national security issues in general, has been 'as much multilateralism as possible, as much unilateralism as necessary.' Right now they're looking for the sweet spot that at this point in the Iraq effort mediates those two principles," says Robert Lieber, an expert in international relations at Georgetown University in Washington.

The US understands the value of getting the UN back into Iraq, especially given the immediate crisis over Sistani's demands for elections, Professor Lieber says. But he adds that America's allies who opposed the war are also looking for ways to put the differences in the past. That sets the two formerly opposing sides on a converging path, he says.

"Whether or not NATO is the right vehicle [for maintaining stabilization forces] in Iraq is an open question," Lieber says. He adds, however, that NATO took over the external role in Afghanistan with little public notice, while several of the countries involved there - again, including France and Germany - have "better expertise than ours" for peacekeeping and postconflict deployments.

The UN's role

Still, the US pressure on the UN to return to Iraq - after it pulled out following the devastating August bombing of its Baghdad headquarters - leaves the international body weighing the role it wants to play in conjunction with a conflict and occupation it did not support.

Annan in particular feels responsible for the losses the UN suffered in that blast. He also believes that only a reengagement with clear responsibilities and goals would serve the UN's long-term interests, analysts say.

"The UN has learned two things from Iraq: that it's difficult to do its job if its mandate is unclear, and to be wary of being used by the US as providing a fig leaf of international legitimacy to its operations," says Hurst Hannum, a specialist in international relations at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

The UN assumes it will take on a significant role in Iraq once a sovereign Iraqi government is in place. But the question remains about the international body's role - and about the costs and benefits to the UN's long-term vitality - during the months remaining of US-led occupation.

"Before going back in, the UN needs to know it has a sufficient degree of authority to match up with the visibility and perhaps vulnerability it will assume," Mr. Hannum says. "It would be a significant negative for the UN to go in and be seen as an institution sent there to do the US's bidding."

Hannum says it would be helpful for the Bush administration to state more openly that "we know we can't do this alone. We can't succeed in Iraq without international help."

Other observers say that is exactly what the White House is doing by such actions as sending Mr. Baker around the world and dispatching Mr. Bremer to New York even as Baghdad bubbles.

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