WASHINGTON - Despite deep misgivings among administration hard-liners, President Bush decided yesterday to seek a multinational force for Iraq under a United Nations mandate and to call on the world body to play a major role in forming a new Iraqi government, a senior administration official said.
Bush's decision is likely to bring about a significant change in Iraq, with American occupation authorities yielding some power to U.N. officials, and France, Germany and Russia, which had opposed the U.S.-led invasion, gaining influence over Iraq's future.
The decision was disclosed after a meeting yesterday between Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who had sought authority to seek a new U.N. mandate on Iraq.
"The president authorized the secretary today to go forward with discussions with his counterparts" among U.N. Security Council members, the senior Bush administration official said. The aim is to "look for a resolution that can define further how the U.N. can support the Iraqis in the political process and to move forward with a multinational force authorized by the U.N."
The move to seek greater international involvement follows a series of violent setbacks to the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, including four recent bombings that have killed scores of people and a mounting death toll among American troops.
And the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, has warned that it will cost "several tens of billions" of dollars to rebuild the war-torn nation.
Countries such as India, Pakistan and Turkey have made it clear that they would send troops to Iraq only under a new U.N. resolution that would give them an international imprimatur and not make them appear to be part of a U.S. occupation force. Such a mandate is also seen as the key to gaining greater support from the Arab world.
Prospective financial contributors, such as Germany and France, demand that the United Nations be given greater authority over Iraq's future, which would diminish the freedom of action of the United States.
The U.N.-authorized force is expected to remain under American command, with U.S. troops forming the largest contingent. The United States has about 140,000 troops in Iraq.
Bush's decision overcame deep divisions within his administration that echoed past debates between pragmatists, mostly in the State Department, and hard-liners in the Pentagon and elsewhere.
While State Department officials had pushed for a U.N. resolution that would bring more international participation in Iraq, hard-liners had expressed serious misgivings about giving the United Nations a wider role.
"This is a coalition-led effort, and it has been from the beginning," McClellan told reporters, referring to the U.S.-led coalition that includes Britain and smaller European allies. "The coalition will continue to lead that effort, but we appreciate all the help we are receiving from other countries."
In Washington, some officials recall nightmares of the early 1990s, when then-U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali persuaded the United States to join a disastrous nation-building exercise in Somalia. U.S. troops became targets of the country's warlords, as did U.N. troops from Muslim nations such as Pakistan.
The officials also recall a period of "dual-key" command during the war against Bosnian Serbs in 1994 and 1995 that allowed U.N. officials to block offensives by U.S. and NATO forces.
U.S. officials hope that past military problems can be avoided by placing the multinational force under American command, an idea first broached publicly last week by Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage.
But some U.S. officials remain wary of handing the United Nations a major role in the development of Iraq's new government and economy, fearing that would undercut Bush's goal of transforming the Middle East, with Iraq eventually serving as a beacon of reform and moderation.
"The vision we have is of a democratic, not a U.N.-ized Iraq," said a senior administration official who has played a key role in internal debates.
Among conservatives in the Bush administration, particularly in the Pentagon, the United Nations is identified with costly oversight, a strangled decision-making process and a long-term presence that hampers the development of democratic institutions.
A Pentagon spokesman, Maj. Paul Swiergosz, refused to discuss his department's objections, saying the job of dealing with the world body belongs to the State Department.
But in a speech before the Iraq war, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld expressed wariness about "international solutions to local problems" that can distort a nation's economy and lead to dependence.
"A long-term foreign presence in a country can be unnatural," Rumsfeld said. "Educated young people can make more money as drivers for foreign workers than as doctors and civil servants."
In East Timor, site of a major U.N. nation-building exercise, "the average income is about a dollar a day, yet the capital of East Timor is now one of the most expensive cities in Asia. Local restaurants are out of reach for most of the people. They cater to international workers who have salaries that are some 200 times the average local wage. In the city's main supermarkets, prices are reportedly on a par with London and New York," Rumsfeld said.
The debate over a U.N. role is clouded by lingering bitterness from before the Iraq war, when France, Russia and Germany joined to block Security Council support for the U.S.-led invasion.
U.S. officials recall past efforts by European powers to gain an economic foothold in Iraq and are wary of encouraging renewed efforts along that line.
"Any kind of broader U.N. role that would put France and Germany on a par with the U.S. in getting reconstruction contracts is pretty much a no-go," said a State Department official who has watched the internal debate unfold.
"The Pentagon view is, 'Most countries calling for a greater role opposed the war and didn't spill blood. They have no right to profit from reconstruction,'" the official said.
There is little question that France, Germany and Russia would require that the United States cede a strong measure of control over Iraq in exchange for strong Security Council backing for international troops and money.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has called for a new approach in Iraq, with the aim of hastening the restoration of political power to the Iraqis, and said in an interview Monday that "the United Nations must have a central role."
Diplomats from Europe and other nations on the Security Council argue that the greater the international presence in Iraq, the less the Iraqi people will feel that they are under the control of an occupier.
"The symbolism is very important, and it won't be lost on the Iraqi people," said a diplomat from a Security Council member nation.
European diplomats contend that the United Nations has worked effectively alongside U.S. troops in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and that no one wants to repeat the mistakes made in Somalia and the Balkans.
In Iraq, they say, the United Nations has exerted a quiet but strong political role in the person of Sergio Vieira de Mello, Annan's special envoy, who was killed when a truck bomb exploded at the U.N. compound in Baghdad on Aug. 19.
European diplomats say a new resolution that would give the United Nations a stronger role in Iraq is essential if the world body is to draw participation from other Muslim countries and particularly the Arab nations.
"The Iraqis need to see the work of foreigners as being to their benefit," said a Security Council diplomat. "This may be easier and faster if there is a new, internationally authorized approach.
"It would have a different smell than if Bremer says, 'We pick Mr. X and make him mayor,'" the diplomat said.
If the Europeans who opposed the war are silently gloating over the American difficulties in Iraq, no one wants it to get any worse, because that might encourage a new isolationism in the United States, says Charles Kupchan, a specialist in U.S.-European relations at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Some Europeans are probably smirking and saying, 'I told you so,'" he said. But "I don't know any European who wants to see the U.S. fail."
Still, it is unclear how much other countries are willing to contribute - even if the United States allows them and the United Nations a greater role in Iraq.
The Bush administration has won no firm troop commitments from Pakistan, Turkey or India. And many nations in the developing world would insist that their troops be paid by the international community.
Major donor countries, mostly from Europe, have held back on making large-scale pledges. An international donors' conference is scheduled for late October.