Why Mr Bush is suddenly courting the UN

Having the US military tied up in Iraq, and the mounting casualties are provoking political concern in America
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The Independent Online

Sometime today the United States is expected to submit a new resolution to the United Nations Security Council defining, once again, the role of the UN in Iraq. The document represents Washington's third attempt to draft a resolution that would have even a chance of winning the necessary majority, unanimity being so remote a possibility as to have been excluded.

You may well wonder why, having spurned and then defied the Security Council back in March to wage its war on Iraq, the United States is now courting that organisation so assiduously. The reasons, both for the US decision to persevere and for the new sense of urgency, boil down to three: money, manpower, and next year's American presidential election.

The US administration has just submitted a request to Congress for $87bn (£52bn) for the next financial year to cover the costs of its involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Three quarters of this is the estimated cost of security provision (US troops and the like); one quarter is earmarked for what is rather too blithely termed Iraqi reconstruction. Granted that there is only so much money and investment that Iraq in its current state can usefully absorb, this is still a far cry from the hope so confidently canvassed before the war that Iraq would be able to cover most of its reconstruction costs itself from oil revenue. It is also rather more than any administration would choose to request as an election approaches.

An international donors' conference is being held in Madrid next week. Both the US and Britain have played down the extent to which an enhanced role for the UN might encourage the flow of financial assistance. The rush for a new resolution suggests the calculation that until there is clarity about the UN's role, there may be no additional money on offer at all.

The extent to which the US military is tied up in Iraq and the mounting number of casualties are provoking public and political concern in America. Two National Guard units, which would normally not expect to serve outside the US, are being deployed in Iraq. The units serving in and around Baghdad have been there since they fought their way north back in March. Reservists, who had enlisted on the assumption that their duties would be confined to weekends and a couple of weeks a year, are finding themselves deployed to Iraq for six months at a time. This may be what they signed up for, but it is not what they or their families had prepared for. And it may well be a consideration in how Americans vote in 2004.

US officials have said - and Jack Straw repeated in the Commons yesterday - that "more than 30 countries" are engaged in Iraq. This is one of those hyper-accurate statements that matches neither the public perception nor the reality. The brunt is being borne by the Americans and the British, helped by detachments from Poland and Spain. France, Germany, India, Pakistan are refusing to send troops as long as the US is in overall command.

The Turkish Parliament finally approved a military contingent last week, after arm-twisting from Washington. But this contribution is proving to be as much trouble as it is worth: the Iraqi Governing Council says it was not consulted and does not approve; there is no agreement on the route by which the Turkish troops will reach their area of deployment; nor is there any stipulation as yet about how far away they will be from the Kurdish area in the north. Yesterday's car-bomb attack on the Turkish embassy in Baghdad is a warning of what may be to come.

Again, Washington is in sore need of international assistance, both to supplement its armed forces and to give Iraqis hope that they will eventually be under international protection rather than American occupation, and that the restoration of their full national sovereignty will follow. Washington also needs to share its responsibilities so that any longer-term disorder in Iraq can be laid at the door of the UN in good time before election day in November 2004.

Passage of the new UN resolution is still by no means guaranteed. The only significant change offered by the US so far is the inclusion of a date - 15 December - by which the interim Iraqi Governing Council will have drawn up a timetable for writing a constitution and holding elections. But this hardly meets the demands of the French and Russians - among many others, not to speak of the justifiably impatient Iraqis - for a clear timetable encompassing the whole transition from occupation to the restoration of sovereignty.

Washington is still refusing to countenance the two concessions that could make the difference. It will not cede any share in the military command and it will not cede political oversight - of either security or the political process - to the United Nations. Without these concessions, however, there is no reason why the UN should return in strength to Iraq and no reason whatever why other countries should expose their nationals to risk. President George Bush, it seems, still wants to have it both ways: a war on his own terms that is paid for and cleared up by others, and a United Nations pliant enough to rescue him from his folly. That may work in New York, but it will not work in the fractious and resentful climate that now prevails in Iraq.