Will the Attack on the U.N. Backfire on the Bombers?

It was the most brazen attack against a U.N. mission ever. But the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on Aug. 19, which killed U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and at least 20 others, may have an effect quite contrary to the one intended. Rather than spurring the U.N. to close its Iraqi operations, the bombing could lead to the creation of a broader international peacekeeping coalition.

How to create such a coalition has divided the U.S. and a handful of key potential partners, from France to Pakistan, for weeks. With its military force of 139,000 stretched to the limit and unable to prevent recent attacks on oil and water pipelines, the U.S. urgently wants more countries to provide troops to assist in stabilizing Iraq. But France and India, able to send upwards of 15,000 soldiers each, have refused to participate without a U.N. Security Council mandate. Pakistan and Turkey are also reluctant to take part without a U.N. imprimatur. After its failed effort to win U.N. backing for the war, the Bush Administration has been wary about entering the diplomatic lion's den again.

But the upsurge in violence, topped off by the U.N. bombing, may change that political dynamic. "This tragedy will shift the thinking in Washington in the direction reality has already been driving it -- to bring the international community in, in a broader and deeper way," predicts Nancy Soderberg, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Adds Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East expert at Washington's Center for Strategic & International Studies: "It may be easier for the U.S. to accept the [U.N.'s] value when people have made this kind of sacrifice. And it may be easier for countries to agree to a U.N. resolution."

The U.S., he notes, is slowly realizing that it is engaged in "armed nation-building." That requires more security personnel with the political and language skills needed to win hearts and minds. Training an Iraqi security force should help. It would also be a plus if Islamic countries such as Pakistan or Iraq's Arab neighbors take part in peacekeeping. So far, the Arab League refuses to recognize the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Pakistan would send troops if there's an international mandate or a request from the Iraqis. "Our people must be convinced we are going in to help Iraqi people," says Pakistan's U.N. ambassador, Munir Akram.

The solution could resemble the Afghan model. There, the U.S. military continues its search for al Qaeda members, but international peacekeepers, now led by NATO, are stationed in Kabul. For Washington, the key is ensuring that Civil Administrator L. Paul Bremer III retains his authority. "You cannot ask him to take this on, then undercut him as soon as he gets up to speed," says a Pentagon official.

Whatever the U.S. and other Security Council members decide, the Iraqi transition will remain tough -- and expensive. The pipeline attacks have dashed hopes that oil exports of 2 million barrels per day will resume by yearend. The U.S., which is paying $4 billion a month for its military effort and rapidly spending $3.6 billion in reconstruction funds allocated by Congress, is looking forward to a donors' conference on Iraq in October. How much other countries stump up could well depend on whether the U.S. allows a U.N.-authorized peace force. If terrorist attacks continue, Washington's incentive to spread the responsibility for nation-building will increase by the day.

By Rose Brady

With Stan Crock in Washington and bureau reports

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