Sunday :: Apr 18, 2004

UN-locking The Iraq Lock

by pessimist

The news that the United States government has agreed to allow more authority for the UN in Iraq is certainly not the freshest on the page. But it looks as if they Bush (mis)Administration finally decided that political expediency overrules stubborn pride.

From all over the globe, the US has been the target of a lot of commentary critical of the way the Occupation of Iraq is deteriorating into mass chaos, and proposing that the US turn over control to the UN, certainly something so obvious even Dumbya could have figured it out - eventually. For an administration that is adamant that it doesn't make mistakes (or, doesn't ever apologize for them), it sure takes its time accepting good advice when it's offered.

Not all of that criticism comes from foreign sources.

It's looking like, in true Chickenhawk fashion, George Warmonger Bush leads from behind the lines - and the times.

Kerry blasts Bush's 'unilateral' Iraq moves

John Kerry aimed a new volley of criticism at President Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq on Saturday, saying Bush's failure to "internationalize" the conflict has made America less safe and cost it credibility and momentum. "Our stubborn, unilateral policy in Iraq has steadily drifted - from tragedy to tragedy," the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said in his party's weekly radio address. Kerry called for a new approach that would put greater reliance on other nations, but conceded "it won't be easy to get our friends and allies to send in new troops."

The Massachusetts senator said that while the United States should not retreat from Iraq in disarray, "staying the course does not mean stubbornly holding to the wrong course. In order to complete our mission, we must review our tactics."

Kerry called for removing the "Made in America" label from the Iraqi operation by creating an international mission authorized by the United Nations to help set up elections, restore government services and rebuild the economy. "The failure of the administration to internationalize the conflict has lost us time, momentum and credibility - and made America less safe," Kerry said.

Mission in Iraq is faltering as respect for the US wanes
* This is an abridged version of an article by presidential candidate John Kerry which first appeared in the Washington Post

TO BE successful in Iraq, and in any war for that matter, our use of force must be tied to a political objective more complete than the ouster of a regime. To date, that has not happened in Iraq. It is time it did. While we may have differed on how we went to war, people of all political persuasions are now united in our determination to succeed.

Because of the way the White House has run the war, we are left with the United States bearing most of the costs and risks associated with every aspect of the Iraqi transition. Over the past year the Bush administration has advanced several plans for a transition to democratic rule in Iraq. Each of those plans, after proving to be unworkable, was abandoned. In the past fortnight the situation in Iraq has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. We have lost lives, time, momentum and credibility. And we are seeing increasing numbers of Iraqis lashing out at the US to express their frustration over what the Bush administration has and hasn’t done.

The events of the past week will make foreign governments extremely reluctant to put their citizens at risk. That is why international acceptance of responsibility for stabilising Iraq must be matched by international authority for managing the remainder of the Iraqi transition. The UN, not the United States, should be the primary civilian partner in working with Iraqi leaders to hold elections, restore government services, rebuild the economy, and recreate a sense of hope and optimism among the Iraqi people.

The administration has set a date (June 30) for returning authority to an Iraqi entity to run the country, but there is no agreement with the Iraqis on how it will be constituted to make it representative enough to have popular legitimacy. In recent weeks the administration - in effect acknowledging the failure of its own efforts - has turned to UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi to develop a formula for an interim Iraqi government that each of the major Iraqi factions can accept. It is vital that Brahimi accomplish this mission, but the odds are long, because tensions have been allowed to build and distrust among the various Iraqi groups runs deep.

The US can bolster Brahimi’s limited leverage by saying in advance that we will support any plan he proposes that gains the support of Iraqi leaders. Moving forward, the administration must make the United Nations a full partner responsible for developing Iraq’s transition to a new constitution and government.

We also need to renew our effort to attract international support in the form of boots on the ground to create a climate of security in Iraq. We need more troops and more people who can train Iraqi troops and assist Iraqi police. We should urge NATO to create a new out-of-area operation for Iraq under the lead of a US commander. This would help us obtain more troops from major powers. The primary responsibility for security must remain with the US military, preferably helped by NATO until we have an Iraqi security force fully prepared to take responsibility.

Finally, we must level with our citizens. Increasingly, people are confused about our goals in Iraq, particularly why we are going it almost alone. The challenges are significant and the costs are high. But the stakes are too great to lose the support of the people. We owe it to our soldiers and Marines to use absolutely every tool we can muster to help them succeed in their mission without exposing them to unnecessary risk. That is not a partisan proposal. It is a matter of national honour and trust.

Even (C)Old Warriors strongly advise Bush to change his aggressive ways.

Vietnam era defence chief slams Bush's policy

Former US defence secretary Robert McNamara, a central figure in the Vietnam war, denounced President George W Bush's policy in Iraq today, saying the United States should not have used its power "unilaterally". McNamara was the hawkish US secretary of defence from 1961-68 under presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both Democrats.

"There's no solution in Iraq that doesn't involve the UN in a major role," McNamara said. Referring to UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's proposals for Iraq's political transition, he said: "The events in the last 48 hours give us some hope." Brahimi expressed confidence on Wednesday that a caretaker Iraqi government could be set up on time ahead of the United States' June 30 handover of power.

McNamara lamented the Bush administration's relations with "potential opponents." "Are we empathetic today in our relations to our potential opponents? I don't think so," he said.

The threat of nuclear proliferation should be a priority, he said, adding that the US nuclear policy has not changed in 40 years. "Our nuclear policy today is roughly the same, it's insane," McNamara said. "We're committed to the non-proliferation treaty ... and here we are, designing two new nuclear weapons," he said. "Our current policy is immoral, it's illegal."

He warned of the threat posed by North Korea, a communist country that has nuclear ambitions. "We are in the deepest trouble with North Korea today," he said. "Pre-emptive action and regime change, it's not going to work. What are we going to do? It's a no answer question, but we have to worry about it."

"We are the strongest nation in the world today," McNamara said. "We should never use that power unilaterally. If we had followed that rule we wouldn't have been in Vietnam," he said at the Plaza Hotel here in a conference organised by the American Bar Association.

A former close adviser to Kennedy, Theodore Sorensen, criticised Bush's "unilateral" policy. "This president needs a reminder: we can't do it alone," he said. "If we've learned something from the commission on 9-11 [investigating the September 11, 2001 attacks], it's that we are never absolutely certain," Sorensen said. "Intelligence is an imperfect art and science. So how can we have a doctrine of unilateral pre-emptive action if we can't be certain?" he asked.

Don't act if not certain? This is going to be a tough sell for a Governor who never let evidence of innocence halt an execution, and aided by a Supreme Court Justice who believes that it's OK to schedule an execution in the face of such evidence.

Back to the rack! - er, Iraq.

Some Europeans weigh in on the topic

Iraq could be worse than Vietnam, says Patten

The Iraq conflict could become "much more serious" than the Vietnam war, EU Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten said today. Speaking at a conference of EU foreign ministers in Tullamore, Co Offaly, Mr Patten said: "The comparison that Iraq could become as difficult an issue as Vietnam is misplaced because I think it is arguably much more serious. If things go wrong in Iraq we will be living with the consequences for a very, very long time."

Brian Cowen, Minister for Foreign Affairs, said the UN’s participation in the political transition process was essential. "We believe that a UN resolution may well be a very helpful and welcome method and mechanism of increasing the orderly transfer of sovereignty to the people of Iraq," he said. "The elements and details of that resolution is a matter for the Security Council members themselves. We are agreed that a strong UN role is an essential element for a successful political transition process. The EU looks forward to the UN playing a growing role, endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, in the run-up to the transfer of sovereignty."

Leaders of the 'civilized' Muslim world ask Bush to reconsider 'Go It Alone'

Malaysian Premier Writes to Bush ahead of OIC Meet

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has written to U.S. President George Bush and key world leaders ahead of a meeting of Islamic countries to discuss violence in Iraq and Palestinian territories. "I've sent letters to President Bush and to leaders of the Permanent Five of the United Nations on the subject of Iraq," Abdullah told reporters on Saturday after a public function. "I have also sent letters to President Bush and others that make up the Group of Four responsible for the Palestinian 'road map' or peace plan," he added.

In the letter on Iraq, Abdullah expressed concern over the worsening security there and hoped nothing would jeopardize the plan by Iraq's provincial authority to return full sovereignty of the state to its people, the Bernama news agency said. Abdullah's letter -- addressed to Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and presidents Jacques Chirac of France, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Hu Jintao of China -- said it was time the international community gave serious consideration to allowing the United Nations a central role in Iraq. The Malaysian premier urged the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to initiate or support such a move.

Even the economic community is urging Bush to change direction!

UN sees strong world economic growth, cautions US

Economist and Nobel laureate Lawrence Klein said US President George W. Bush appeared to be making the same mistake in Iraq as former President Lyndon Johnson made during the war in Vietnam that began for the United States four decades ago. Securing and then rebuilding Iraq will be costly and take a long time. Yet Mr Bush - like Mr Johnson in Vietnam - appears intent on not paying while events are unfolding, Mr Klein told a news conference at UN headquarters. When Washington finally did pay back what it had borrowed for Vietnam, the effects on the economy were felt for a decade, in the form of recession and inflationary pressures, he said. "It will catch up to you," he warned.

While US deficit spending and Americans' strong appetite for imported goods stimulate growth both domestically and around the world, continued US expansion will depend largely on the willingness of the rest of the world to keep buying US Treasury bonds, the latest forecast from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs said. The US economy, the world's largest and a crucial driver of global growth, was expected to expand 4.7 per cent in 2004 compared to 3.1 per cent in 2003, according to the new report. But it questioned the continuing ability of the United States to serve as the locomotive of world economic growth due to its soaring budget deficits and yawning trade gap. "Such a cycle of interdependency... is unlikely to prove sustainable," the report warned.

That must have been the answer - get the bankers on him! In wake of such advice, look what happened!

Bush goes back to UN shelter

The Bush administration, in the face of mounting American casualties in Iraq in recent days, has agreed in principle to dismantle the US-sponsored governing council and replace it with a UN-backed government in Baghdad. British prime minister Tony Blair, the most staunchest US ally, flew into Washington to throw his full weight behind the new move. He met UN Secretary General Kofi Annan here Thursday.

President Bush and Tony Blair addressing a news conference after their meeting in Washington stoutly defended the military invasion of Iraq. They restated what they have been saying since long in their defence and declared that they would firmly stand behind the 30th June deadline for the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis.

Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed the move and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice saw nothing in the proposal that could be of concern to US. Defence Secretary Rumsfeld not very explicit in expressing his view said UN-sponsored government in Iraq could be a reality.

Everything will 'however' depend on Lakhdar Brahimi who will supervise UN operation in Iraq. Brahimi who supervised work in the post-war Afghanistan enjoys the confidence and trust of the United States and is a highly respected man in the Arab world.

The new government will supervise transfer of sovereignty to the people of Iraq by June 30, help Baghdad embrace a democratic constitution and hold the election at the end of year or next year to transfer power to the representative of the people. Washington will continue to be the most influential voice even under the new framework. Maintaining law and order and providing security to the people will be the principal task of the new government. The coalition forces may soon be joined by troops from other countries that agreed to provide troops only under the auspices of the UN. Bangladesh could as well be asked to provide troops.

The Bush administration's sudden change of tack may well be construed as a climbdown from its earlier intractable stand on Iraq. This could upset Bush's plan for the second term in the White House.

Image is all, right George? No point in allowing poor performance facts to get in the way of another (s)election!

At any rate, the world's opinion, not that Bush cares, is favorable toward this move. From Japan:

U.N. Iraq plan offers ray of hope - Yomiuri Shimbun

The agreement by the United States and Britain to back a U.N. envoy's proposal for a caretaker government in Iraq provides a ray of hope for the future of the war-ravaged country. The international community must work to ensure that the hope becomes a reality.

Brahimi's proposal viable

It remains to be seen whether Brahimi's proposal will be supported by Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. It should be noted, however, that a U.S. plan to expand the Iraqi Governing Council to serve as a provisional government has been stalled as a result of lack of support from the Iraqis. Brahimi's proposal could be a viable alternate as a means of ensuring a smooth transition to Iraqi rule. The proposal needs all-out support from the international community. The United States and Britain should do whatever they can to ensure the transfer of sovereignty. The Iraqis will be more than disappointed if the transition to sovereign rule is prolonged because of declining security in the country. Such a situation would only leave Iraq in a state of greater chaos. The U.S. and British leaders have every reason to insist that the transition to Iraqi rule will take place as initially planned.

U.N. role key in handover

Blair has emphasized the importance of a U.N. role in transforming Iraq into a democratic nation, saying that the international body would "play a key role" in the process. He has urged the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution that will authorize Brahimi's proposal. Such a resolution will be essential in keeping an Iraqi government in place after the transfer of sovereignty. France, Germany and Russia--all U.N. members who opposed the Iraq war--have insisted on a greater U.N. role in rebuilding the country.

We believe that the Security Council should adopt a new resolution authorizing Brahimi's proposal as soon as possible. The international community must renew coordinated efforts to reconstruct Iraq.

Stabilizing Iraq will make the world safer. The chief players in maintaining Iraq's security and aiding in the country's reconstruction under a caretaker government will be foreign troops sent to that nation. Self-Defense Forces personnel will be an important part of this international team.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 18)

The view from the European Union:

New UN resolution could get EU in Iraq: Solana

The European Union said Saturday a new UN resolution could get the bloc involved in Iraq, despite the bitter opposition of some of its members to the US-led war. EU foreign ministers, at a two-day meeting here, called for the United Nations to take a pivotal role in running Iraq when the coalition hands over power to an interim administration at the end of June. "We are agreed that a strong UN role is an essential element for the political transition process," Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen told a news conference after the talks. "The European Union looks forward to the UN playing a growing role endorsed by the Security Council in the run-up to the transfer of sovereignty and beyond," said Cowen, who chaired the talks.

EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana said Security Council blessing for the June 30 handover would confer more "legality" on a new Iraqi government in the run-up to UN-held elections planned for the start of next year. "And therefore it would be much more easy for the European Union to cooperate, for all the members of the European Union," he said. "We would like to get engaged in an Iraq that is stable, that is an important player in the region in the future. That is our aim, but for that the legitimacy of the United Nations is fundamental," Solana said.

The EU also backed UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in his efforts to craft a new political set-up for Iraq after June 30.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, while welcoming the prospect of a UN mandate for Iraq, was non-committal on whether his government would overcome its strong opposition to the war and start playing a role in the country. "A UN resolution will be useful to consolidate the transfer of sovereignty," he said after the EU talks here.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany, which also opposed the war, said: "The UN should play a decisive role. Discussions will be lead on the basis of the Brahimi proposals. "For now the point is that Iraqis will see a process of reconstruction and will regain their sovereignty," he said.

Meanwhile, Back at the White Ranch - er, House, ...

Bush, Blair vow to 'stand firm'

US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed to stamp out violence in Iraq. At a joint news conference with Mr Bush after talks at the White House, Mr Blair said the coalition would stamp out a rebellion launched this month by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and also win the battle against Sunni guerillas. "We stand firm. We will do what it takes to win this struggle," Mr Blair added.

"It was never going to be easy," said Mr Blair, who also backed Mr Bush's decision to accept UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's proposals for a caretaker government in Iraq under a planned handover of power on June 30. "Our task is to take this state and turn it into a democracy, stable and prosperous, a symbol of hope to its own people and throughout the whole of the Middle East," he said. The US called on governments to contribute troops to a new military force it is setting up to protect UN staff on their eventual return to Iraq.

Note that Tony Blair is the one doing the talking. So how did he get George to accept the inevitable?

How Blair persuaded Bush to back down over the Middle East

AS HE flew back from Washington, Tony Blair’s sense of victory at entering the White House and having an ambitious wish-list granted will have been tempered by the news that a United States soldier captured in Iraq was being paraded in front of the cameras of the al-Jazeera TV network. Earlier, as he stood beside the Prime Minister, George Bush, the US president, accepted far greater United Nations involvement in Iraq and flatly denied any deal with Israel where it can keep the West Bank if it pulls out of Gaza. Mr Bush’s words were few - and almost grudging. The Prime Minister spoke at length to spell out in detail that the UN-agreed road map to peace in the Middle East was squarely on the agenda. It was a remarkable summit, with remarkable results.

Yesterday, Mr Bush agreed to a wider UN role in Iraq - and said he remains committed to the UN-backed "road map" to peace in the Middle East. The future of the West Bank was open, he said, there had been no deal with Israel. In the space of 48 hours, US policy on the Middle East has appeared to perform a bungee-jump. On Wednesday, Mr Bush stood next to a visibly delighted Ariel Sharon - appearing to offer the Israel prime minister the very deal he denounced last night.

Since the days of Henry Kissinger, the US has held a firm policy on the Middle East: it would defend Israel’s existence, but not its conquests. Any spoils of the 1967 war, therefore, had to be returned to the Palestinians. During Mr Sharon’s visit to the White House, Mr Bush said it was "unrealistic" to expect Israel to surrender the settlements of 200,000 Jewish people in the West Bank. This was a reward for Israel’s decision to pull out 7,500 people from the Gaza Strip.

In London, this was greeted with horror by the Foreign Office. British officials were given no hint about this impending U-turn: Jack Straw, the Foreign Minister, had to be told about it by an official on his mobile phone. It seemed that Mr Bush was tearing up the road map to peace - and reaching his own agreement with Mr Sharon. His language - giving his blessing to Israeli settlements on the West Bank - seemed to suggest that he had taken charge.

In London, one word went through the minds of officials: "election". Mr Bush had finally had enough of multi-lateralism: he needed Jewish campaign donations and Jewish votes in swing states like California.

Mr Blair had prided himself on turning the famously inward-looking Mr Bush to take a view on the world - and, specifically, joining the UN to come up with the road map agreement in the first place. As he flew from Bermuda to New York, Mr Blair found an equally furious Kofi Annan. Pointedly, the Prime Minister had decided to make the UN headquarters his first stop-off - and compare notes with its secretary-general. A while ago, the meeting would have been an embarrassing one: Mr Blair had been accused of bugging the offices of Mr Annan and Clare Short, his former international development secretary, claimed she had read the transcripts. But on Thursday, both had more urgent matters to talk about. The proposed hand over of power in Iraq was only 45 days away - and the Bush administration, again mindful of its election timetable, was keen to keep to the deadline. This was the time for UN troops to enter.

Mr Annan and Mr Blair agreed two themes which had been thrashed out earlier by Sir Nigel Sheinwald - No 10’s foreign policy adviser: a UN resolution which would bring in far greater appearance of troops. And both decided on an urgent need to salvage the road map. By this time, a policy had already been prepared in London by 10 Downing Street. Mr Blair would emphasise Mr Sharon’s offer to withdraw from the Gaza Strip - and downplay what may or may not happen in the West Bank. The idea of a "deal" between Israel and the US had to be killed off - and this needed words from Mr Bush. The US president needed to say that the future of the West Bank was up for grabs and dispel the widespread suggestion that he had agreed that Israel should keep its settlements there.

The key was in the text of Mr Bush’s letter to Mr Sharon. This had been the fruit of much arm-wrestling between Jerusalem and Washington: as late as Tuesday evening, Israeli officials were unhappy with the draft and had suggested they may pull the visit completely. Mr Sharon was taking a huge political risk in agreeing to pull out of the Gaza Strip, they said - to make the move at all, he needs to win a vote of 200,000 members of his Likud party. He needed something to take back to Israel with him. So while Mr Bush agreed to say that it was "unrealistic" to remove all Jewish settlements from the West Bank - or to allow Palestinian refugees the right to return to settle in Israel - he did not delete references to "final status negotiation".

So was there a Gaza-for-West Bank deal or not? It was entirely a matter of interpretation. There were enough conflicting signals in the Bush-Sharon letters to support either version of events. It took Mr Blair little time to work out his theme. He wanted Mr Bush to say "road map" and point to the fact that it promised nothing to anyone about the fate of the West Bank. Standing in the White House Rose Garden, the US president duly obliged, and also focused on Gaza without mentioning the West Bank deal. Mr Sharon’s offer "gives all sides a chance to reinvigorate progress on the road map", he said. "I’m committed to the vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security."

When it came to UN involvement in Iraq, there was also consensus. Both welcomed proposals from Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy, to dissolve the Iraqi Governing Council and develop a caretaker government until elections can be held early next year.They also allowed the idea of a new contingent of troops whose job will be protecting UN staff. The clear intention is to enlist military support from countries who cannot stomach working for the US.
After the briefing Richard Armitage, US deputy state secretary, was also singing from the Gaza-centric hymn sheet. "Our view is that this is a historic opportunity. For the first time, Israel is giving up settlements," he said. Had Mr Bush changed his policy back to the road map? "I think everyone will have to make up their own mind," he said.

Ambiguity, certainly, will be needed for Mr Sharon to win his 2 May vote in the Likud party - the angrier the Arabs are the more likely Mr Sharon is to win.

Mr Blair has never had difficulty drawing warm words from Mr Bush but seldom has he left Washington with so many of his wishes granted. The test will be whether the US pursues the road map’s deadline of a Palestinian state by the end of next year. But by last night, the image of a captured US soldier on television may have sowed seeds of doubt in Mr Bush’s mind about the way forward in Iraq.

Mr Bush said: "The Prime Minister and I have made our choice. Iraq will be free. Iraq will be independent. Iraq will be a peaceful nation and we will not waver in the face of fear and intimidation."

Mr Blair said: "Since 11 September our two countries have been friends and allies standing side by side and we will continue to do so."

Mr Bush said: "The past few weeks have been hard and those ahead will surely bring further challenges."

Mr Blair said: "We will do what it takes to win this struggle, we will not yield, we will not back down in the face of attacks either on us or on defenceless civilians."

And what say the British Press?

Bush's UN move partly down to 'poodle' Blair, says British press

Britain's press gave Prime Minister Tony Blair some credit for Washington's belated backing for a greater UN role in Iraq, but maintained he was still acting as US President George W. Bush's "poodle".

"Bush backs Blair on UN," said The Times after listening to the leaders' joint press conference on Friday.

"Blair wins concession in push for democracy," said The Daily Telegraph following Bush's backing of a UN blueprint outlining the road to the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty on June 30.

"What substance there was suggested that Blair's earlier 90-minute conference with the president may have had some usefulness in promoting the role of the UN," said the less-convinced Guardian.

Despite flattering headlines, a deeper look into the reams of editorials on the Blair-Bush summit suggested the British press was looking rather suspiciously at the relationship between the two, supposed best allies. All apart from The Sun that is, Britain's most pro-war of tabloids, which jingoistically defended the pair's Iraq policy: "Their tough talk during Mr Blair's White House visit smashed criticism of strained transatlantic relations," it said.

The Financial Times was not so convinced by the bonhomie. For London's respected business paper the couple exhibited only a "facade of unity" based on a shared faith in the need for greater UN input in Iraq. "The prime minister says he discusses policy differences openly with Mr Bush in private, but so long as he refuses to discuss the widening gap publicly, it will be easy for critics to deride him as the president's poodle," said the FT.

The Daily Mirror, a tabloid and Britain's strongest voice of opposition to the Iraq war, took up the gauntlet thrown down by the FT and went further. "Tony Blair last night took on the full-time job of cheerleader for George Bush in his bid to be re-elected president of the USA," it said.

With less than 200 days to go before his job goes up for grabs at the 2004 US elections, Bush's approval rating in the polls in the United States is at one of the lowest points since he took office in January 2001. The Daily Mirror argued that as Bush stumbled and stammered his way through an attempt at an articulate Iraq policy, the job of presenting the US case fell to Blair. "He did it with his usual skill. It sounded right. It was professional," said the newspaper. "But it was not the role of prime minister of my country, locked as he is into the dirty politics of an American president."

The Independent agreed, in part, saying: "As so often in the past, the British prime minister provided the articulacy and the 'narrative' so lacking in the president's uncertain and drifting remarks. All Blair's rhetoric cannot mask the simple fact that it is President Bush who calls the shots and that his actions are very far from reassuring," it added.

The question of just how far Britain's doubtful influence over US foreign policy goes -- in particular over Iraq -- was taken up by the Daily Mail: "These last two weeks have revealed how very marginal Britain's role is, both in Iraq and the wider Middle East," it said. "America is Britain's greatest ally and rightly so. But Tony Blair has taken huge political risks to stand beside Mr Bush in this misbegotten venture," it said. "Can he point to any significant influence Britain has wielded in return?"

Indeed! Maybe the new UN inspector can assist with something.

Paul Volcker to head U.N. Iraq probe - WASHINGTON POST

UNITED NATIONS - Facing mounting criticism of the U.N.'s management of an oil-for-food humanitarian program in prewar Iraq, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on Friday appointed former U.S. Federal Reserve Bank chairman Paul Volcker to head a panel that will probe allegations of corruption at the U.N. agency.

The move is part of a broader effort by U.N. officials to contain the political crisis, and to demonstrate that some blame rests with nations on the U.N. Security Council that failed to close loopholes allowing Saddam Hussein's government and scores of foreign companies to exploit the system.

Volcker's appointment comes less than a week before the first of two hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives into allegations that Iraq was able to illegally siphon billions of dollars from the U.N. program when it was supposed to exchange oil only for civilian goods. U.S. lawmakers have warned that a credible investigation into corruption in the program is essential to restoring the United Nations' reputation at a time when it is being called upon to help Iraq through its political transition this year and elections early next year. "Assuming there is wrongdoing found by some U.N. officials, it is important to have an independent and credible investigation into these allegations to put to rest any lingering concerns," said Nancy Soderberg, a former U.S. representative of political affairs to the United Nations. "I think Secretary General Annan has made it clear he will do what it takes."

The U.N. came under scrutiny after the head of its oil-for-food program, Benon Sevan of Cyprus, was included on a list of those who allegedly received vouchers to purchase or trade large quantities of Iraqi crude at a discount rate. Sevan has denied the allegations. Annan, asked if he has confidence in Sevan, and said, "We are going to investigate these allegations very seriously and with a very thorough independent investigation."

Volcker's panel will probe those charges as well as broader allegations that Saddam skimmed billions of dollars from the 1996 oil-for-food program, which permitted Iraq to sell oil and use that money only for purchases of food, medicine and other civilian goods. Saddam's leadership, however, was able to pocket $4.4 billion in cash under the program, in part by secretly demanding extra payments from companies that wanted to purchase Iraqi oil, and by charging illicit commissions to businesses that were sending the permitted humanitarian goods to Iraq, according to the General Accounting Office. It generated another $5.1 billion in illegal earnings from smuggled oil outside the U.N. program, according to the GAO.

The Bush administration has defended Annan, charging that Russia, France, China and other commercial partners of the former Iraqi government bore greater responsibility for misconduct by routinely frustrating efforts to rein in abuses in the program. "We have had resistance" from those countries "with respect to correcting improprieties and inadequacies" in the program, John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.

The United States says it supports an appeal by Annan and Volcker for passage of a legally binding Security Council resolution that would "compel member states and entities to comply with the Secretary General's intention to thoroughly investigate the charges," according to Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. But Russia opposes the adoption of such a resolution.

A senior Russian diplomat suggested that the oil-for-food "scandal" is an invention of conservative activists in the United States who promoted the theory that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. "Are they doing these hearings alongside with the WMD inquiries?" Russia's acting U.N. ambassador, Gennady Gatilov, asked a reporter. "I personally have very big doubts about any possible corruption on the part of the United Nations."

U.S. and U.N. officials say they have been aware of abuses in the program since late 2000. But they said they could find little hard proof until the collapse of Saddam. That's when Iraqi civil servants told U.S. officials the leadership charged a cash commission of at least 10 percent on every contract since 2001. "It was the ministry officials themselves who came to us and said, 'Here's what's been going on. Here is the system, here are the percentages,'" Robin Raphael, the State Department's Iraq reconstruction coordinator, told the Senate.

U.N. officials have provided closed-door briefings to U.S. auditors, and House and Senate staffers, in their effort to demonstrate that key council members including Russia, France and China routinely stalled efforts to address abuses in the program. They have charged that the United States showed little interest.

The United States challenged that assertion, but Negroponte acknowledged that corruption was never a main focus of the U.S. mission to the U.N., which devoted most of its energy to preventing Iraqi importation of banned weapons.

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