Parallel Universes in Iraq

After facing great uncertainty and turmoil in Iraq, President Bush is now a man with a plan.

On paper, at least. And much of his endgame for Iraq lies in the lap of the United Nations.

The plan endorsed by Mr. Bush last week would allow the UN to pick a caretaker government with a president, prime minister, and consultative assembly to take over sovereignty after June 30. And the UN also would shepherd elections in January to help form an elected government.

The United States, meanwhile, would keep a parallel power base, represented by a six-square-mile complex around Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace in Baghdad. The current American in charge, Paul Bremer, and his Coalition Provisional Authority would be gone, along with the US-picked Iraqi Governing Council, whose 25 members haven't been acceptable to the UN or many Iraqis. Left behind would be a US ambassador who would be in charge of 3,000 "embassy" workers dispensing $18 billion in aid and who would have a say over US-led military forces - including Iraq's.

Or would he?

The Bush administration probably will face the dilemma that a new Iraqi government might oppose US or British military operations at times. In fact, the UN envoy who traveled around Iraq to develop the transition plan, Lakhdar Brahimi, criticized the US attack on the Sunni town of Fallujah. He told Arab media, "Collective punishments are not acceptable - cannot be acceptable, and to cordon off and besiege a city is not acceptable."

Mr. Brahimi gave the US a taste of the official resistance that an Iraqi regime could display.

Bush's choice to be the US ambassador, John Negroponte, will need all his 44 years of diplomatic service to deal with this built-in separation of civilian and military authority. His delicate, but not always successful, work as US envoy to the UN before and after the Iraq war will be needed as he tries not to be like the domineering Douglas MacArthur in occupied Japan.

The UN Security Council will probably soon pass resolutions that approve this volatile mix of US power and Iraqi rule. As new leaders gain legitimacy, the role of US military can recede.

And in about nine months or less, a new nation can be born.

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