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Attacked, America runs to UN

Babylon (Iraq), Sept. 3 (Reuters): US President George W. Bush shifted strategy on Iraq and sought to give the UN a larger role as a Polish-led force took command of a chunk of the country today from US Marines.

Amid daily and often deadly attacks on US troops and other targets in Iraq, Bush directed US secretary of state Colin Powell to open negotiations at the UN Security Council on a resolution designed to build a wider multinational force.

The US said today it would insist an expanded multinational force for Iraq fell under America command.

“The US will remain the commander...,” Powell said in Washington as US officials talked of a draft UN resolution that envisaged elections to restore power to Iraqis. Washington previously appeared to have ruled out any bid for a new Security Council resolution encouraging more countries to contribute troops or other aid to help stabilise Iraq.

But four major vehicle bomb attacks in a month and the refusal of some countries to contribute troops without a UN mandate seem to have swayed Bush into changing course.

(Securing troops from other countries became an urgent priority for the administration also with yesterday’s release of a report by the Congressional Budget Office that the Pentagon would be able to sustain an occupation force of only 38,000 to 64,000 in Iraq in the long run with the present projections and budget allocations. This is a far cry from the present number of 150,000 US troops. Even that current figure is increasingly considered to be insufficient.)

“We heard from the president that he is willing to follow the UN track, a larger responsibility for the UN, and that is very good,” Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said today after a breakfast meeting with Bush in Washington.

“It is important that more countries are being involved in Iraq as far as military support is concerned. The second element is we have to work on democracy and the new structure of policymaking on Iraq,” Balkenende said. In a move planned weeks ago, the Polish-led multinational force took command of the so-called central-south zone from the Marines, who had been in charge of the area for several months.

“I have absolute faith and confidence in the 21 nations that will assume their responsibilities today,” Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, commander of US troops in Iraq, said in ancient Babylon.

Nato secretary-general George Robertson said in a statement: “This contribution will help ensure that we defeat the men of violence who seek to undermine the stability so much desired by the people of Iraq.”

In Baghdad, new Iraqi ministers were sworn in and were set to get down to work in what the US-led administration says is another step towards handing the reins of power back to Iraqis.

A wider UN role could also make it easier to gain reconstruction funds at a donors’ conference in Madrid in October, as many contributors are uneasy about the US-led occupation.

At a preliminary meeting in Brussels today that involved the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the EU and others, the US-led authority in Baghdad sought to allay concerns about security.

“The US wanted to explain that, in their view, the situation was less worrying than people think and getting better every day,” said a European diplomat, declining to be named.

Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world behind Saudi Arabia, but sabotage and looting have put the brakes on the industry powering an economic recovery.

A car bombing in Iraq yesterday targeted Baghdad’s police headquarters, killing one policeman and wounding 15.

Similar bombings against the Jordanian embassy, the UN headquarters and a top Shia cleric have killed scores of people.

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