Why Bush Will Go Back to the UN on Iraq

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The United Nations discussed its role in reconstructing post-war Iraq

The UN Security Council is probably the last place many would expect the Bush administration to go to discuss the next step in Iraq. But the White House wants international sanctions against Iraq lifted immediately, in order to free up Iraqi oil revenue for reconstruction. And the UN Security Council is not only the sole body legally empowered to lift those sanctions; it is also legally in control of Iraq's oil revenues right now. That's why the U.S. plans next week to take its call for lifting sanctions to the same Security Council that failed to authorize its invasion of Iraq.

The war appears to have changed the terms of discussion at the Council. The antiwar bloc led by France, Russia and Germany looks intent on cooperating with the U.S. and its coalition partners, having responded positively last week to their call for a revival and expansion of the UN oil-for-food program to meet Iraq's humanitarian needs. Still, important differences remain, and the sanctions issue may be the last opportunity for the antiwar Europeans to exert any leverage. France said this week that the coalition forces have primary responsibility for maintaining security in Iraq, and that the UN's role should be established on an issue-by-issue basis. But it remains committed, along with its European Union partners (including Britain) in pressing for a "central role" for the UN both in reconstruction and in the process of establishing democratic government in Iraq.

"A central role" is not the same as the central role, of course, and the Europeans are clearly seeking a compromise. They were unable to stop the war, and its outcome has further marginalized their influence on the ground in Iraq. Yet, they remain unwilling to simply hand legal control of Iraq over to the U.S. or a U.S.-made Iraqi authority — at least not without some compromises. And the sanctions regime, to which France and Russia have for years demanded an end, is now ironically their only leverage through which to seek a role for the UN — and by extension, a modicum of influence for themselves — in Iraq's immediate future.

Chirac has emphasized that France supports the lifting of sanctions, but that it is up to the UN to determine how that could be done. And that means some tough bargaining lies ahead. Despite the elimination of Saddam Hussein's regime, ending sanctions is no simple matter for the UN. The reason: the purpose of those sanctions was not regime-change; it was to force Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, and then, after that had been achieved, to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction. On the basis of current resolutions, the only legal mechanism by which the Security Council can terminate the binding sanctions regime is if Iraq is certified by UN arms inspectors to be free of weapons of mass destruction. That would require sending Dr. Hans Blix and his team back into post-Saddam Iraq in order to complete their work. Blix, who is scheduled to brief the Security Council on Tuesday, has urged the coalition to allow his team to resume its work, in order to give any findings greater credibility.

The Bush administration has thus far shown no inclination to invite the UN inspectors back into Iraq. Instead, the U.S. military has been sending its own inspection teams to scour the country for banned weapons, and has even reportedly tried to recruit some of Blix's staff to help.

What role Blix and UNMOVIC play in the lifting of sanctions will inevitably emerge from a deal between the U.S.-led coalition and Russia and France. There's more than a whiff in their standoff of the politics of oil. France and Russia signed multibillion dollar contracts with Saddam's regime to develop Iraqi oil fields after sanctions, and they want those contracts respected. But even as Washington is concerned to allay Arab — and, particularly, widely-held Iraqi — suspicions that the U.S. seeks to control Iraq's oil wealth, it will also counter the Russians and French by arguing that their contracts were concluded by an illegitimate regime on the basis of political rather than business judgments, and that U.S. and British oil companies will expect, at minimum, the right to compete for such contracts on an open playing field.

The return to the Security Council helps Britain press its case in Washington for UN authorization of the transition in Iraq, which Prime Minister Tony Blair believes is essential to its legitimacy and success. Blair met with both Chirac and Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Wednesday at an EU summit in Athens, and reported a positive atmosphere of cooperation on Iraq. And Chirac broke the diplomatic ice with President Bush in a 20-minute phone call earlier this week, in which the French leader promised to take a "pragmatic" approach to postwar Iraq. And antiwar France and Germany join U.S. allies Spain and Britain in EU discussions with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on his organization's postwar role.

The bargaining at the UN may be tough, in the weeks to come, but it's more likely than the prewar wrangling to produce agreement — because this time, France and Russia can't afford to remain on the sidelines.