Last year, President Bush defied a majority of United Nations members when he launched war to the death against Saddam Hussein's regime. This year, he needs the UN's help if he wants to pull the US forces out of Iraq in anything other than humiliating disarray. This is so because - in Iraq, as in Palestine and a number of other countries - a transition from rule by a foreign military force to rule by a representative indigenous government is a tricky move that can require the facilitating role of a trusted intermediary.
Last Saturday, a UN political team traveled to Iraq for exploratory consultations with Iraqis over whether countrywide elections can be organized there before June 30. (That is the deadline that the Bush administration has already announced for a significant handover of power from the US-led coalition to Iraqis.) Many Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population, have called loudly for full-blown elections, and for a greater political role for the UN, judging that this approach will bolster the political standing of their community. The Shiites had earlier roundly rejected the complex and undemocratic system of "caucuses" proposed by Washington and its local allies.
The UN team's mission is a sensitive one. Last spring, Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent another political group to Iraq where they worked according to rules that left many UN staffers concerned that the group was, in effect, operating on behalf of Iraq's foreign occupying power, the US. That mission came to a horrifying end last August when mission head Sergio Vieira de Mello and a dozen staffers were killed by a car bomb at their compound.
This time around, Mr. Annan has been more careful to specify that the UN will be responsive first and foremost to Iraq's people.
This time, too, his bargaining power with the Bush administration is stronger than it was last spring - for two reasons. First, the US forces' continuing presence within Iraq has turned out to be much less popular than Bush and his team were expecting back in the spring. Second, internationally, the Bush team has been badly embarrassed by its failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that formed their main declared reason for launching the war.
The dispatch of the present UN team to Iraq comes at a turning point in the complex relationship between the US and the UN. If the Bush administration is truly determined that the UN should have a meaningful political role in Iraq, then there are a number of areas in which Annan and UN members other than the US could do some interesting bargaining with Washington.
The core issue the two sides will negotiate is the possible mandate of a longer UN postelection presence in Iraq. Evidently, Mr. Annan will be very reluctant to give any resumed UN mission in the country the same kind of "fuzzy mandate" that proved so damaging for Mr. de Mello's team. But will Washington be ready to give the UN the lead political role in Iraq that many of non-US members of the UN Security Council seek? Can Mr. Bush accept that the 130,000 US troops in Iraq might, for some period of time, be taking orders from a UN political leadership that would - in one of the most hopeful of scenarios - be helping the Iraqis to organize their first democratic election?
Such a division of labor would not be unprecedented. In Namibia, the foreign occupying army from South Africa provided security in 1989 for a countrywide election organized by the UN (Namibia's black nationalists won that election, and the South Africans gracefully handed power over to them.)
Another issue that could be bargained over is the timing of the handover in Iraq. The Bush team has so far been adamant that some kind of visible transition to Iraqi governance should occur on or before June 30. But was that date chosen with mainly American electoral considerations in mind? And does it make sense to stick to it if another date - earlier or later - might work better for the Iraqis themselves?
Finally, since I am writing this from Jerusalem, I have to note that the state of US-UN relations on the Palestinian issue is another topic that is linked in many ways to the negotiations over Iraq. From here, it is clear that the "road map for peace," which was the main mechanism through which Washington, the UN, the European Union, and Russia coordinated their approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking over the past 18 months, is finally dead. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has torn up the road map and has chosen a unilateral course that involves some sizable Israeli withdrawals from Gaza alongside continued construction of the "apartheid wall" that pushes deep into the occupied West Bank.
Mr. Sharon's decision to reject negotiations and act unilaterally is a recipe for continued suffering for Israelis and Palestinians. Will President Bush call him forcefully back to the negotiating table with his Palestinian neighbors? Will the non-US powers at the UN try to link a resumption of talks between Palestinians and Israelis to their willingness to help Washington escape from its imbroglio in Iraq?
As of now, it is too early to answer these questions. But it is already clear that the balance of relative power between the US and the world's other nations has changed a lot during the past year. And that change will have many ripple effects - elsewhere in the Middle East, and around the world.
• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.