WASHINGTON - The Bush administration signaled for the first time yesterday that it might be willing to allow a multinational force in Iraq to operate under the sponsorship of the United Nations as long as it was led by an American commander.
The idea was described by the deputy secretary of state, Richard L. Armitage, as just "one idea being explored" in discussions at the United Nations. Such a plan was first described publicly last week by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Still, Armitage's remarks signified an important shift in course for the administration, which has until now insisted that all military, economic and political matters in Iraq remain under American control.
By allowing the United Nations to assume more authority, the United States would be aiming to win the support of the Security Council for a new mandate authorizing the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
In his remarks, Armitage declined to discuss details of the plan, saying: "I don't think it helps to throw them out publicly right now." But he described the plan as "a multinational force under U.N. leadership" in which "the American would be the U.N. commander."
The Pentagon has historically opposed any arrangement under which U.S. troops were not under American control, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he would oppose putting the occupation force in Iraq under U.N. authority.
But Bush administration officials said a model that might overcome such objections would be the arrangements put in place in the early 1990s in Somalia, where a peacekeeping operation blessed by the United Nations remained under the command of an American general who maintained direct control of U.S. troops.
Asked Monday whether he could envision American troops fighting under U.N. command, Rumsfeld said, "I think that's not going to happen." But he framed his answer carefully, ruling out only "a blue-hatted leadership" by the United Nations over a peacekeeping force in Iraq, but not a multinational force.
Armitage made his comments in an interview on Tuesday with a group of reporters from regional newspapers. A transcript of the remarks was made public yesterday by the State Department.
The new show of flexibility on Iraq policy appears to reflect deepening concern within the Bush administration about the unwillingness of many other countries to contribute troops and money to the American-led effort in Iraq.
To help win more financial backing for the effort, the United States is planning to convene a conference of donor countries in New York in October, but congressional officials said yesterday that they expected the White House to ask Congress in the meantime to allocate at least $1 billion more to help the U.S.-led occupation authority cover its costs through the end of the year.
The cost to the United States of military operations in Iraq is running at about $4 billion a month, administration officials have said. Beyond that, the American-led occupation authority has nearly exhausted the $1.7 billion in seized Iraqi assets that had been set aside to cover emergency payments to Iraqi workers, Bush administration and congressional officials said yesterday.
The officials said the remainder of a $7 billion fund set aside to cover the reconstruction and occupation efforts is also nearly exhausted. They said they now realize that Iraqi oil revenues will not come close to covering the tens of billions of dollars in costs of rebuilding and running the country in the years ahead.
In an interview published yesterday in The Washington Post, the top American official in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, said Iraq would need "several tens of billions" of dollars from abroad in the next year to rebuild its electric, water and other systems and to revive its economy.
Bremer said the cost of meeting current electrical demand would be $2 billion, while a national system to deliver clean water would cost about $16 billion over four years.
The White House has so far declined to say how much more money it intended to seek from Congress. But a top Republican lawmaker, Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, said yesterday that the administration "needs to be frank with us and say what we need in going forward."