A fragile new consensus, a resolution lacking clarity - but at least the UN is back

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The United Nations is finally back in Iraq; not yet as a physical presence, but as the architect and guarantor of Iraq's re-birth as a sovereign state

The United Nations is finally back in Iraq; not yet as a physical presence, but as the architect and guarantor of Iraq's re-birth as a sovereign state. This is a thoroughly positive development, one of very few pieces of unmitigated good news since the whole sorry saga of the war in Iraq began. Barring last-minute hitches, the terms on which Iraq's sovereignty will be restored have been agreed. A unanimous Security Council vote on the new resolution was confidently expected overnight.

President Bush could not have wished for a more auspicious start to the Group of Eight summit that opened on Sea Island last night. The international community, so called, which ruptured in such acrimony over the decision to go to war is now presenting a united front on the priorities and arrangements for peace.

The new resolution has much to recommend it, quite apart from its value as a symbol of a more constructive international mood. From 1 July, the United Nations is where most of the levers of influence and accountability will reside. The Security Council is to receive regular reports on the state of security and progress towards elections, not just from UN representatives, but from the US on the part of the multinational force.

The mandate for foreign troops is fixed and requires formal renewal from the UN if it continues for more than one year. The Iraqi interim government has the power to revoke the mandate for foreign troops, and this is enshrined in the text of the resolution. So, after much hard bargaining, is a provision for the Iraqi government to be involved in agreeing policy on what are described as "sensitive offensive operations". Security for the UN in Iraq is to be provided by a quite separate force.

The UN representative and the US commander, on behalf of the foreign troops, will be required to submit regular reports to the UN on progress towards improved security and elections. The UN is also committed to ensuring that all Iraqi and foreign forces abide by international law and humanitarian conventions (a clear attempt to prevent a recurrence of the maltreatment of prisoners by US troops at Abu Ghraib).

All rejoicing over the new-found international consensus, however, must be tempered by acknowledgement of the deep divisions that remain about the wisdom of the war and the compromises that have now been made. The new consensus is fragile. France, Germany and other opponents of the war have had to accept a continuing US and foreign military presence in Iraq and power for the Iraqi government that stops a little short of full sovereignty as commonly understood. But the US Administration has also been forced to compromise, probably more than it initially hoped, largely because of the mistakes and miscalculations it made over the past year. Washington has not only paid a price for its unilateral resort to force, it has had to return to the UN and sacrifice at least some of its freedom of manoeuvre.

In two areas, the resolution lacks clarity. The terms on which foreign troops remain are relegated to letters that are appended to the resolution, not included in the text. These letters must be published in full, so that all parties, including the Iraqis, may read and understand the conditions. There must be no secret codicils, no hidden clauses, that permit the document to be reinterpreted later. Troops, foreign and Iraqi, are also given much leeway to deal with "terrorists" - a term left dangerously undefined.

The resolution is a constructive start to what will still be a difficult and uncertain period in Iraq. But it will be worth nothing if it is not acted upon by the Security Council members who voted for it and if it is not acceptable to Iraqis. The real test of that will be not the words of approval that Iraq's newly chosen president and ministers are uttering now, but what happens after 30 June, when real power is set to pass into the interim government's hands. Will the violence against US and foreign forces then subside, or will the insurgency continue and find a new target in the UN?

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