Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations' special envoy to Iraq, ended his visit here last week with veiled criticism of the US-led coalition and recommended a transition plan that reshapes the American vision of who should take power June 30.
Given poor relations between the US and the UN, Mr. Brahimi's comments might have drawn a stinging rebuke from Washington. The envoy even described fighting in Fallujah as a form of "collective punishment" pursued by US forces, a highly emotive phrase in the Arab world usually used to describe Israeli actions against Palestinians.
But the Bush administration thanked him; White House Press spokesman Scott McClellan said Brahimi was "helping to move forward on our strategy."
The warm reception for Brahimi's plan, which will dramatically undercut the influence of the US-appointed Governing Council, illustrates how much the chaos inside Iraq in the past month has affected US plans.
With continued fighting between Sunni insurgents and marines in Al Anbar Province, which claimed five more American lives Saturday, and with a tense standoff between US forces and the militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf, the US is edging toward the world body it spurned only last year in the run-up to the war.
Some analysts say broader UN involvement in transition plans offers the best chance to create stability in Iraq before elections, scheduled for next January. They say recent fighting has undermined Iraqi trust in the US and its allies on the Governing Council.
"It's very good news that Bush seems to be endorsing Brahimi's plan,'' says Ghassan Attiya, a political scientist and formerly exiled opponent of Saddam Hussein's regime. "The US is turning to Brahimi now to save themselves. They know they're in a mess and Brahimi can help them get out of it."
Dr. Attiya says that US resistance to UN involvement in the past has made it more difficult to draw in troops from the European Union. He said it has also made it easier for insurgents to finger Iraqis working with the coalition as US puppets. "With the UN, we might be able to draw in NATO to help secure Iraq until the elections, and we'd be rid of this ugly word 'occupation.'"
The US sought to expand the Governing Council to as many as 100 members by July 1, with added responsibilities like writing Iraq's electoral laws. They would run most aspects of the state, except for security affairs, until elections could be held. The US plan envisioned three leaders to represent Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.
Brahimi's plan seeks to appoint a "caretaker" government limited to election responsibilities. It would deemphasize religious and ethnic quota policies that the US supports. He envisions a transitional government with a prime minister, a president as head of state, and a broad-based consultative council to advise the transitional leadership but with no lawmaking powers.
The top leaders would probably be selected by the UN. Brahimi said he'd like to select technocrats for the role, since outright politicians could be seen as manipulating the process to prevail at the polls. Iraqi leaders who consulted with Brahimi on his week-long visit say the envoy was also concerned that the ethnic-based approach would introduce divisions into Iraqi society at a time when national unity is paramount.
The Governing Council is split over support for the UN plan. Some see the world body as the only way forward, while others, like Achmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), have repeatedly dismissed the UN since it opposed the US-led invasion.
Dr. Chalabi, who lived in exile for 40 years, has limited political support in Iraq and would probably be sidelined by Brahimi's plan. With close ties to the Pentagon and as one of the principal conduits on intelligence about alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction before the war, he was originally seen as a future leader of Iraq by the US.
"The concept of Brahimi appointing people is not acceptable, the concept of technocrats working out the political problems of Iraq is not acceptable,'' says Entifadh Qanbar, the spokesman for the INC. "If you want to give the UN the position to appoint people and run the political process [that] means that Iraqis will not get the sovereignty we want."
Others disagree. "What Iraq needs is leaders who have deep roots here, who have proven themselves to be effective and trusted by the Iraqi public,'' says Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, a Governing Council member who represents a large tribal confederation. "The most important thing that should happen is we should stop looking at Iraq through this ethnosectarian lens."
Sheikh Yawar says he's delighted that the UN's role looks set to expand. "Brahimi has enough experience to be the most helpful person in rebuilding Iraq. He has an extraordinary record and is quite competent."
Brahimi has had a tense relationship with Chalabi over the past decade; The INC alleged he was a Saddam supporter in 1991. The INC, which receives financial support from the US, advocated for a US invasion throughout the 1990s.
On Friday, Brahimi spoke out against the de-Baathification process inside Iraq, led largely by Chalabi and his allies. "It is difficult to understand that thousands upon thousands of teachers, university professors, [and] medical doctors ... who are sorely needed, have been dismissed," he said. In Hussein's Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were expected to join the party or lose their jobs.
Mr. Qanbar attacked Brahimi's credibility on the issue. "This is an outrageous interference in Iraq's internal affairs,'' he says. "The Iraqi people have suffered from the Baath party for 35 years, and we feel this represents provocation on his part."