With the battlefield action in Iraq ended, attention is again focussed on the United Nations. The Security Council was the scene of acrimonious debate before the war erupted. Now the debate is over what the Security Council should do next with regard to Iraq and what potential role exists for the United Nations there.
The war may be essentially over in Iraq, but at the United Nations there are some things that have not changed. The Iraq sanctions are still in place, despite calls by the United States for them to be lifted. Because of that, the "Oil for Food" program under which Iraqi oil is sold to buy food and other necessities for Iraqis, is still in existence.
The reason, analysts say, is because the deep wounds opened by the bitter debate in the Security Council over endorsing military action against Iraq are coloring postwar deliberations.
On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed to member states to put aside those differences for sake of Iraq's reconstruction.
"The council now has a chance to leave behind earlier disagreements and find unity of purpose in the post-war phase," he said.
Jonathan Tepperman, a senior editor at Foreign Affairs Magazine, says countries that opposed the U.S. action against Iraq are trying to use the lifting of sanctions as a way of regaining some political leverage.
"At the Security Council and the U.N., sanctions and 'Oil for Food' has become the latest lever that countries that are opposed to the United States acting alone [against Iraq] to try to re-assert their influence. I mean, of course, Russia and France," he said.
European powers have also called for a substantive role for the United Nations in postwar Iraq. The United States has agreed the U.N. should play a vital role. But just what "vital" means in the U.S.-Iraq context remains undefined. Most signals emanating from the Bush administration point to the U.N. having a strong humanitarian part in reconstruction but playing no political role. On the political front, at least, the United States appears to want a primary role until there is an Iraqi authority in place.
Bathsheba Crocker, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the Bush administration is furious with the United Nations for refusing to endorse military action against Iraq.
"I think that the administration really feels sort of mad at the U.N.," he said. "You know, they don't feel like they got the treatment that they wanted or the decision that they wanted in the U.N. in the lead-up to the war. And I think the reluctance to engage the U.N. at this point demonstrates that they do feel a great deal of bitterness about it."
But analysts say mutual interest may yet heal the diplomatic and political wounds opened at the United Nations. They point out that the United States emerged from the war with great power but needs legitimacy for its role in Iraq. The United Nations lacks any power except what is bestowed by member states. But, as Jonathan Tepperman points out, it can confer legitimacy.
"All around the world, Washington has this serious legitimacy problem. It is desperate to avoid the perception that it is a colonial occupier in Iraq," he said. "And as we've seen with the rising unrest over the last few days, and the unfortunate incidents where U.S. troops fired on Iraqi protesters, already the perception is that the American presence in Iraq is becoming more and more onerous. If the United States could defuse that perception by getting in either 'Blue Helmets' [U.N. peacekeepers] or a U.N. flag, that would aid it enormously."
But, while there is no sign on the horizon of a greater political role for the United Nations in Iraq, analysts say there are areas, such as marketing Iraqi oil, in which the United States cannot act alone, and will need U.N. cooperation.