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Iraq move points to US limit

Larger UN role has ramifications in Middle East

WASHINGTON -- By allowing the United Nations a significant role in postwar Iraq, the Bush administration is ceding authority over what it regards as an important asset in its war on terrorism: a platform from which it can extinguish radical Islam and cultivate a democratic Middle East.

The decision to seek UN help, while not unexpected, validated concerns among security specialists that US forces alone will not be enough to stabilize the country. But it also exposes the limits of President Bush's doctrine to use force -- preemptive and unilateral when necessary -- to subdue dictators and extremists on the front lines of the war on terrorism.

"For the militants, now is their golden moment," said Isam Al-Khafaji, a former Iraqi dissident and a scholar-in-residence at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "America's credibility in the region is at worrisome low levels. The situation could go either way."

White House hard-liners had resisted a robust UN presence in Iraq, diplomats and analysts say, in part because it would restrict their capacity to support their Middle East friends and intimidate their enemies. The road to peace, according to Bush hawks before the war, led not through Jerusalem but Baghdad, implying an American-led show of force in Iraq would cow unruly elements into compromising with Israel and accommodating US interests.

"The chances for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will improve as soon as Saddam is gone," Richard Perle, a key Pentagon adviser, said in a March 3 debate at the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Washington. "We will have a good opportunity to persuade Syria to stop supporting terrorism if we remove Hussein."

In fact, say diplomats and analysts, the war and its aftermath have in many ways fortified groups and states aligned against the United States and Israel.

In the West Bank and Gaza, Mahmoud Abbas, the US-backed Palestinian prime minister, appears to be on the verge of resigning or being ousted because of power struggles with leader Yasser Arafat and his inability to rein in militant Palestinian groups like Hamas. Israel, meanwhile, has continued to carry out targeted strikes on Hamas members in response to recent suicide bombings and has threatened to reoccupy Palestinian territories -- a move that could inhibit US efforts to woo Arab support for its policies on Iraq.

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, one of the few Arab leaders who condemned the US-led war on Iraq, has backed away from meaningful political and economic reform and has shown little inclination to curb his support of Lebanese-based Hezbollah, a radical Islamic group. His move to close down the offices of radical Palestinian groups operating from Syria has been cosmetic, say diplomats in Damascus.

The Iranian government is reportedly holding key Al Qaeda officials with information on operations the group might be planning to mark the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But as a member of the "Axis of Evil," as President Bush characterized the Iranian regime immediately after the assaults, Iran has little incentive to hand them over to US officials.

In chaotic, postwar Iraq, militants have begun seeping into the country, well-armed and eager to join the resistance against US occupation. Even in Afghanistan, which appeared to be stabilizing more than a year after the ejection of Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts, US forces are engaged in escalating clashes with Islamic militants filtering back into the country.

Many analysts and diplomats say that short of destroying Iraq's Ba'ath regime, Bush has accomplished few of his Middle East policy objectives as promoted by administration hawks, whose credibility has been strained by the widening gulf between the strategic assumptions that preceded the war in Iraq and the reality of its aftermath.

"It was an ideological cluster within the Defense Department that horribly miscalculated the costs and consequences of the invasion," said Anthony H. Cordesman a security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "One still hears speeches [from administration officials] about the need to democratize the Middle East using Iraq as a model and it makes as little sense now as it did then."

Diplomats said they welcomed the White House gesture toward the UN, which they described as another chapter in the ongoing struggle between administration hawks and moderates. But they warned the initiative would get a tough hearing in the Security Council, which has been stiffened by the death of Sergio Vieira de Mello, its most senior official in Iraq, in a terrorist attack Aug. 19 on its headquarters in Baghdad.

"They're digging in their heels," said a World Bank official who worked with UN staff in Baghdad. "They feel like they lost one of their best guys for nothing and for them to put up another guy like that requires clear authority."

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