Tony Blair was rebuffed yesterday when he attempted to persuade Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, to appoint a special representative to Baghdad.
The Prime Minister wants the UN to provide a veneer of legitimacy to the interim administration being set up in Iraq by America and Britain and says it should play a "vital" role in the country's future.
But in a private meeting with Mr Blair at the European summit in Athens, Mr Annan made clear that a credible special representative in Baghdad would need Security Council approval – requiring backing by France, Germany and Russia.
America and Britain are anxious to secure international blessing for a future Baghdad administration of their design. And yesterday President George Bush said the UN should now lift sanctions on Iraq. Washington wants a UN special representative in Baghdad – as head of a big humanitarian effort – but will not countenance a further round of tortuous negotiations in the Security Council.
According to diplomatic sources, Mr Blair tried to "nudge" Mr Annan into naming a special representative, arguing that America would eventually soften its opposition to the Security Council process and that the UN needed to be involved from the outset.
When Mr Annan said there was "no choice" but to go through the Council, Mr Blair is understood to have shaken his head in dismay.
"The hawks in the Bush administration feel they were badly burnt by the failure to get the Council's backing for the war and are determined to stop the people who blocked them from getting their hands on the pie," is how a senior diplomat explained the US position.
As the occupying powers, Britain and America can legally set up an interim administration, but they require Security Council approval before a new constitution can be written for Iraq. World Bank and IMF loans and even oil contracts require the legal underpinning of the UN.
Under the Geneva Conventions the changed nature of the Iraqi government must be approved by the UN before it has international legitimacy.
The discussions came as Europe finally edged towards acceptance of American dominance in Iraq. France appeared to accept that the UN would have only a limited role in reconstruction and humanitarian aid for the country – but insisted on Security Council backing. In the most significant attempt yet to heal the transatlantic rift over the war, Paris suggested that it recognised the reality of US and British forces working on the ground.
After a day of hectic negotiations on the margins of the EU summit, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, declared that there was now a "new atmosphere" uniting the Security Council members France, Germany, Russia, Britain and Spain.
In a separate initiative, leaders of the 15 EU states worked on a surprise statement about how to balance the differing roles of the UN, the US and Europe in post-war Iraq. President Jacques Chirac said the EU would organise a humanitarian airlift of casualties, while Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands offered to send peace-keeping troops to Iraq.
Mr Straw was keen to play down the importance of a common EU position and warned that the UN would be relegated to the "sidelines" in the reconstruction debate if there was a repeat of the diplomatic breakdown at the Security Council that preceded the war.
The EU leaders were meeting in Athens to sign a treaty opening the Union to 10 new members. The Greek capital saw its worst rioting for 30 years when 7,000 anti-war protesters took to the streets, focusing on buildings including the British embassy.
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