Bush seeks UN help to cut the cost of rebuilding Iraq

In a major policy reversal, the United States began consultations yesterday on a new United Nations resolution authorising a multilateral force in Iraq, and providing for a much greater role for the world body in rebuilding the country.

The decision acknowledges an overriding reality - that the US, whose soldiers are dying almost daily in Iraq, has neither the troops nor the money to rebuild the country singlehandedly. It coincides with a study showing that unless the Pentagon were to secure outside help or spend tens of billions of dollars to enlarge the US armed forces, it would be forced to slash its troop strength in Iraq to 64,000 by next March - less than half its currently inadequate 140,000.

According to Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, the draft which was circulated to council members yesterday has two key elements: first, to call on Iraq to come up with a plan and timetable for writing a constitution and holding free elections, and second, to give the go-ahead for an international force, clearing the way for hitherto reluctant participants to send their own troops to Iraq. General Powell said a multinational force would have a unified command, headed by the US. "The US would be designated the leader of the coalition that would report to the UN," he said.

Ideally the US would like to have a resolution approved within a fortnight, before President George Bush travels to New York to address the General Assembly and meet other world leaders. Yesterday, General Powell described as "positive" his initial discussions with Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and the foreign ministers of France, Russia and Germany. But he indicated that tough negotiations lay ahead on the precise authority to be ceded to the UN.

Another goal of the resolution is to secure international financial help with reconstruction costs. The sums required will be huge. Yesterday's report by the Congressional Budget Office suggests the military cost of a scaled-down 60,000-strong US force might be "only" $12bn (£7.64bn) a year, but Paul Bremer, head of the occupying authority, said "tens of billions of dollars" will be needed this year alone for reconstruction. Mr Bush is expected to ask Congress soon for up to $40bn of extra funding for Iraq, adding to budget deficits forecast at $480bn for 2004.