Russia, France and other key Security Council members set the stage today for a new battle over Iraq, signaling that the United States must give the United Nations a broader role in reconstruction efforts before sanctions can be lifted.
U.N. diplomats said that differences in the council are likely to delay agreement on a resolution lifting sanctions at least until June 3, when the latest temporary U.N. mandate permitting Iraqi oil exports expires.
President Bush appealed to the 15-nation council on Wednesday to move quickly to lift the trade embargo that was imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990, and let Iraq's extensive oil resources be made available to get the country back on its feet. State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said today the council must "accept the fact that with the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, the need for economic sanctions goes away."
But Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, speaking in Moscow, said economic sanctions cannot be lifted until a number of conditions required by Security Council resolutions -- including proof that Iraq has fully disarmed -- have been met.
"This decision cannot be automatic," he said. "For the Security Council to take this decision we need to be certain whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or not." Russia and other council members maintain that it must be U.N. inspectors, not the U.S. military, who verify whether the country has been disarmed.
French President Jacques Chirac, attending a European Union summit in Athens, said sanctions could be lifted. But he said that "naturally, it is up to the United Nations to define how."
The EU echoed that demand in a statement issued from the summit: "The U.N. must play a central role, including the process leading toward self-government for the Iraqi people, utilizing its unique capacity and experience in post-conflict nation-building."
The Bush administration is reluctant to grant the United Nations that role, saying that the Security Council failed to meet its obligations when it opposed military action in Iraq. "The mood in Washington is very tough," one senior council diplomat said. "They believe they were right and the council was wrong."
Administration officials said they view the upcoming debate over sanctions as a test of whether the council is prepared to do its part to improve the lives of Iraqis or simply rekindle old battles.
"We need not to have everybody go to their corners and talk about theological expressions of what the U.N. has to be, but all unite now and do what is best for the Iraqi people," a senior U.S. official said. "The means when it comes time to lift sanctions, it ought to be done because it will benefit the Iraqi people."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said it remained unclear how extensive a role the United Nations would have in Iraq, but noted that it has the capacity to deliver food and distribute humanitarian aid. "I don't know how it will shake out," he told a Pentagon gathering. "But the president, I think, recognizes that, having done what we've done, and taken the regime out, that this country and the coalition countries have an obligation to see this through."
The Pentagon has dismissed demands that U.N. inspectors be sent back to Iraq to verify any discovery of banned weapons by coalition forces. Instead, U.S. weapons experts have sought to persuade U.N. inspectors to resign and enlist in the American hunt for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
U.S. and British officials said today that they will try to build momentum in the council toward a common approach to Iraq by seeking agreement in the coming weeks on a series of "easily resolvable" issues.
One such issue might be a resolution spelling out a set of principles, including the preservation of Iraq's territorial sovereignty and the centrality of human rights, that would govern a future Iraqi government. The United States and Britain are also weighing whether to press the Security Council to appoint a senior U.N. envoy to coordinate U.N. activities in Iraq.
They would then move on to the more contentious issues, including the role of U.N. weapons inspectors, the fate of sanctions and the future of the U.N. oil-for-food program. That program -- established in 1995 to allow Iraq to sell oil to purchase food, medicine and other humanitarian goods -- requires a new mandate by the council every six months. The current mandate expires June 3.
Russia and France were among Iraq's key trading partners before the war, selling billions of dollars in products through the oil-for-food program. They remain concerned that the United States and Britain would freeze them out of future commercial opportunities once the program is ended and sanctions are lifted.
Despite the dispute, U.N. diplomats said that there is a stronger basis for council agreement than in early March, when the United States and Britain failed to obtain agreement on a resolution authorizing military action.
Several council members that opposed the U.S.-led war, including France and Germany, are eager to repair their relations with the United States. And few countries would want to be seen preventing a new Iraqi authority from using the country's oil revenue to rebuild the nation. "The public relations aspects look rather different this time," one council diplomat said. "I don't think they can hold the Iraqi economy hostage. But they are not just going to hand it all over to the coalition."
Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham, speaking this week in Vancouver, said he and his government "stand by our reasons for abstaining from the [military] campaign" and he suggested that the United Nations should play a major role in reconstruction. But noting the "extraordinarily successful" U.S.-led war, he added: "We now seek to be of help in providing humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people and dealing with the challenges of reconstruction."
A French official said it was premature to discuss whether only the United Nations could confer legitimacy on a new Iraqi government. "There is a new spirit to frame the problems one by one, and try to find a global solution -- a good role for the U.N., a good role for the U.S. and British forces, and for the EU, if there is one [a role]," the French official said.
Asked to define a legitimate government, the official said it must "represent the Iraqi people, and it is better achieved with a multilateral process, something under the aegis of the U.N."
Asked whether there would be opposition from some factions in the Bush administration to the United Nations making such a decision, the French official said such opposition "is not wise," and added, "If they want to have trouble, it's up to them."
The official reaffirmed Paris's position that it would be willing to contribute peacekeeping troops or reconstruction aid if the Security Council asked it to. "We will fulfill our responsibilities" under the United Nations, the official said.
McCartney reported from Paris. Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report from Washington.