WHEN SERGIO Vieira de Mello arrived in war-ravaged Iraq in June as the United Nations' special envoy, the Brazilian diplomat emphasized his primary objective: "to make sure that the interests of the Iraqi people come first."
Yesterday, Mr. Vieira de Mello died in the rubble of his Baghdad office, one of at least 20 killed in a devastating truck bomb blast. The masterminds of this terrorist attack - could it be anything else? - chose a symbolic target for their murderous mission, the headquarters of humanitarian efforts in Iraq.
The United Nations' work in Baghdad predates the American invasion and its increasingly lethal occupation. Since the war's end, however, the international body, through its envoy, Mr. Vieira de Mello, sought to set itself apart from the United States' presence. Mr. Vieira de Mello, a former human rights commissioner, had pressed the case for a free Iraq governed by free Iraqis and the need to deliver the country to its people swiftly.
The assault on the U.N. offices at the Canal Hotel can be interpreted only one way - that everyone is fair game in the drive to oust the occupiers. How that message affects the U.S. mission in Iraq and its reconstruction efforts is yet to be determined. President Bush, speaking from his ranch in Texas, predictably categorized the U.N. attack as part of "the war on terror" and vowed that "these killers will not determine the future of Iraq." L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, offered a more pertinent assessment of the bombing: "There will be ups and downs, there will be days like today. ... But there is absolutely no question that the coalition intends to stay the course."
"Days like today." That characterization reinforces the consequences of the United States' insistence on controlling the rebuilding of Iraq. This is a mission that has been hampered increasingly by guerrilla assaults and terrorist attacks. When the Bush administration reluctantly sought military help from other countries, it found few takers, and understandably so. France and Germany, opponents of the U.S.-led war, wouldn't even consider it without a share in the postwar rebuilding and more knowledge of U.S. plans for Iraqi oil revenue. Other nations refused without the imprimatur of the United Nations. A U.N. resolution, however, would threaten U.S. control, a prospect not in the White House's interest.
But a multinational force would serve America's interest in this campaign. The goal of a free and democratic Iraq, in all its complexities, may be more swiftly realized if the industrial nations led the way under a U.N. umbrella. A group effort would reduce the cost to the United States - and some of the spoils, but let's not be greedy. It would bolster the reconstruction effort and diminish anti-American sentiment.
Mr. Vieira de Mello's tour was to end in eight days. When he took the job, he emphasized that the United Nations was in Iraq for the long haul and would be there "long after the coalition has left." His death, like those of so many others, reinforces the need to marshal all the help and resources necessary to achieve a new Iraq.