THE EXPLOSION of looting in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities at the end of last week presented a serious new challenge to U.S. and British forces. It also vividly demonstrated a truth that the Bush administration has been slow to accept: that the United States cannot manage postwar Iraq on its own. On Friday, U.S. soldiers mostly stood by as Iraqis stripped hospitals and other vital facilities, compounding the humanitarian problems the country faces. Even if order can be restored in the coming days, U.S. commanders say frankly that their troops are not prepared to perform police duties -- and there are few Iraqi police uncompromised by the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime. Officials say a number of countries are volunteering to help with policing and other essential reconstruction tasks. But they also acknowledge that many such offers are contingent on the United States winning the United Nations' approval for its postwar administration. That will likely require more flexibility and willingness to compromise with Security Council members than the Bush administration has shown up to now.

The events of the past three weeks have largely vindicated the U.S. decision to act against Saddam Hussein's regime despite the obstructionism of a Security Council bloc led by France, which instead of voting to enforce U.N. disarmament resolutions tried to rally the world in support of containing U.S. power. The scenes of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the downfall of a murderous dictatorship have prompted questions in Paris about whether a European democracy should have opposed the liberation so fiercely. Yet French President Jacques Chirac is tempted to continue his anti-American campaign, as he demonstrated Friday by rushing to St. Petersburg to join a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Should these leaders persist in their project to turn the Security Council into an instrument for controlling the United States, they could make another diplomatic brawl inevitable. They could also do more harm than they did by opposing the war. Without U.N. endorsement it will be difficult not only for foreign peacekeepers but also for institutions such as the World Bank to return to Iraq; it might even be difficult to market Iraqi oil.

The Bush administration should be able to avoid such an outcome -- not by capitulating to unreasonable French demands, but by supporting a reasonable plan for an Iraqi political transition. Administration officials argue that the president compromised last week by agreeing that the United Nations should have a "vital" role in postwar Iraq, including input into the selection of a new Iraqi administration. But the Pentagon's plan still calls for U.S. officials to dominate the process by which Iraqis will be chosen for a temporary administration. According to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz, "town hall meetings" at which invited Iraqis will discuss the transition will be presided over by Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the senior war commander, and only Britain, Australia and Poland, the three allies that contributed ground troops, will participate in organizing them. Such a narrow formula seems unnecessary and counterproductive; it could deprive the political process of credibility while making agreement at the United Nations impossible.

Rather than rushing to carry out a preemptive transition, U.S. commanders should focus in the coming days on restoring order to Iraqi cities and ensuring the delivery of humanitarian supplies. President Bush could meanwhile consult the United Nations and other nations about postwar arrangements and offer a role to those prepared to cooperate. Good diplomacy in the coming weeks could relieve the United States of many risks and burdens it will otherwise have to bear in Iraq. Mr. Bush should lead that effort; phone calls to Mr. Schroeder and Mr. Chirac would be a good place to start.