U.S. now open to peacekeepers in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A senior Bush administration official said publicly this week for the first time that the United States might accept a United Nations-sponsored peacekeeping force in Iraq if it was led by U.S. military commanders.

Richard L. Armitage, the deputy secretary of State, said a U.N.-sanctioned, American-led force was "among several ideas that are being explored" as U.S. and other diplomats work to secure the deployment of additional troops from other nations and funding for Iraq's reconstruction.

A similar approach was used last year for the international peacekeeping force that is now operating in Afghanistan. Diplomats have been discussing for several months whether to use a similar model for Iraq.

The U.S. has ruled out the idea of a regular, blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeeping unit, because that would force the Pentagon to cede military authority. Defense officials fear that such a division of authority would undermine U.S. efforts to end the fighting in the country.

Armitage's comments were made Tuesday in an interview with several news organizations and were released Wednesday by the State Department.

He emphasized that the idea was only under discussion and that no decisions had been reached.

But Armitage insisted that U.S. and other officials were actively seeking a way to broaden the United Nations' role in Iraq, despite the strong differences between American leaders and others on how that should be accomplished.

He stressed that U.S. and allied officials were "still actively exploring" the notion of a broader U.N. role. "We have plenty of time," he said.

Armitage said diplomats were also considering the idea of giving the U.S. commanders the top military role, while shifting control of the civilian side of reconstruction to the United Nations. He described that as "one of the interesting ideas that has come out of the discussions we've had."

The Bush administration has strongly preferred to retain control over Iraq's reconstruction and to limit international authority in the country. But with costs soaring and U.S. casualties increasing steadily, the White House has been under growing pressure to share the burden.

Last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell went to the United Nations to begin a renewed effort to find a way to broaden international participation. Officials said Powell had continued talks in recent days, including with officials of nations such as France and Germany that opposed the Iraq war and have since been hesitant about joining the U.S.-led rebuilding.

Some countries, such as India, have said they could not consider deploying peacekeepers to Iraq without a U.N. Security Council resolution to demonstrate the world body's approval of the venture. The Indian public opposed the war in Iraq, making it difficult for the government to send peacekeeping troops to aid what many Indians view as an occupation.

Seeking aid from other countries for the rebuilding process, U.S. officials are also trying to organize an international donors conference in Madrid in October.

U.S. officials are rapidly running out of money to fund the reconstruction, which has been financed so far by $7 billion in congressional appropriations, international contributions and seized Iraqi assets.

They are expected to soon ask Congress for up to $3 billion more to help keep the effort going, congressional aides said.

The U.S. troop deployment in Iraq is costing nearly $4 billion a month.

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