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Published: 8/22/2003

Peace takes a big hit

The bombing of United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and the murder of the U.N. secretary general's special representative underscore the obvious, and worsening, lack of public order in the Iraqi capital.

The horrifying violence and death toll, along with the cutting of the pipeline carrying Iraq's oil exports and the interruption by sabotage of the city's water supply, have occurred despite the presence of some 150,000 American and British troops, nearly three months after President Bush declared the war over.

To compound the mess in that part of the world, a Palestinian suicide bomber may have plundered the “road map” to peace once and for all when he killed at least 20 people, including five children, on a Jerusalem city bus on the same day as the bombing in Baghdad.

The whole peace process in the Middle East has been so tenuous and fragile that it was virtually impossible that the radical hotheads in Hamas could let a period of relative calm go undisturbed.

The attack also demonstrated the obvious - that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas cannot control those who want peace to fail at any cost.

The two terrible events raise important questions.

Specifically, with regard to the U.N. bombing, who is behind the violence? Is the “who” in question organized in a coherent organization, or are the perpetrators collectively a more spontaneous, uncentralized collection of ex-Saddam, Baathist Iraqis? How many are Iraqis and how many radical Islamists from elsewhere? Is al-Qaeda in the picture? Has it now hopped on the anti-American bandwagon in Iraq? And - worst of all - what do we, the United States, do now?

First of all, the United States pays homage to the brave U.N. personnel killed and wounded. U.N. staff are a special breed, men and women willing to put their lives on the line, not for their country out of patriotism, but for the cause of world peace and a collective international approach to solving world problems. That doesn't make them better or different from the 269 American military personnel who have died in Iraq, but in general they do march to a different, sometimes more idealistic, drum.

Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil, the U.N. special envoy who died in the blast in Baghdad, was one of the organization's best. At 55, having already served with distinction in many of the U.N.'s toughest jobs, it is fair to say that he could have become secretary general one day.

The U.N. attack means that the attackers are not just opposed to the American presence there. It indicates that, even if the United States were to agree to a larger, more responsible U.N. role, someone who is armed and dangerous wouldn't accept it.

It also seems that some of those stalking the U.N. as well as the U.S. presence in Iraq are not just opposed to being governed by non-Muslims. The U.N. is perfectly capable of fielding a team in-country that includes important numbers of Muslims, by faith and by national affiliation. So it boils down to the attackers likely being Iraqis, perhaps supported by non-Iraqi Islamist militants, who basically will not accept Iraq being ruled by foreigners, even reasonably benign foreigners operating under a U.N. aegis.

One U.S. option is to put more troops into Iraq. The politics of that are decidedly unattractive to the Bush Administration, reflecting decreasing public enthusiasm for a greatly oversold war. Such action would also have the ugly echo of Vietnam. And where would the troops come from anyway? U.S. forces are stretched thin, with already significant deployments in Afghanistan, Korea, Germany, Japan, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Liberia.

A second option would be for Bush Administration xenophobes to bite the bullet and ask for a U.N. resolution and U.N. help in meeting the security need in Iraq. It is a tribute to the United Nations that almost certainly, in spite of the terrible hit it and its people have just taken in Baghdad, that the organization would respond positively to a respectful request from the United States for its help.

The third option would be for the United States simply to declare victory and walk away from the Iraq mess, dumping it in the lap - or, more politely put, turning over responsibility for it - to the Arab League, the U.N., or whoever else might be willing to pick up the pieces.

None of these options is particularly palatable, so the Bush Administration really has no alternative at this point but to sit down with U.N. officials in their grief and try to figure out how the world collectively can put Iraq back into shape, with the goal of turning governance of it back over to the Iraqis as soon as possible.



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