UNITED NATIONS - Before President Bush challenges the Security Council today to confront Iraq over a decade of defiance or stand aside, Secretary-General Kofi Annan will have his own message to deliver: Only the United Nations can sanction an attack on Iraq, so do not act alone.
"When states decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, there is no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations," says a draft of Annan's speech distributed yesterday.
"The primary criterion for putting an issue on the council's agenda should not be the receptiveness of the parties, but the existence of a grave threat to world peace."
Though softened by diplomatic language, Annan's message is clear: If the United States goes it alone, it will undermine international rule of law, risk losing friends it may need in the future, and will have to clean up - by itself - any mess it creates.
The stern language in Annan's speech and its early distribution set the stage for the latest round of a diplomatic struggle between the Bush administration and the world body.
Senior U.N. officials said the draft of the speech, which Annan also gave to Bush yesterday, was released so it would receive the same amount of attention as the president's speech to the General Assembly today.
The world body has long held a difficult position in U.S. foreign policy. U.N. officials believe that the American government often uses the body as a surrogate when it is convenient and as a scapegoat when plans go awry.
Analysts said that Bush's presenting his case against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein shows that this time, at least, Washington thinks it needs to be a team player.
"It's a question of necessity more than choice," said Edward C. Luck, director of the Center on International Organization at Columbia University. "Getting international support reinforces the possibility of getting domestic support and vice versa. The U.N. happens to be the arena where it all comes together."
Diplomats are relieved that Bush seems to be heeding a chorus of warnings that he not skirt the United Nations.
"There was a consistent message from all sides, from his father's former advisers to leaders across Europe and the Middle East," said William H. Luers, president of the United Nations Association of the United States of America, an independent think tank. "Since Iraq is unfinished U.N. business anyway, if you don't at least make an effort to address the U.N. role, it would be missing a big opportunity to engage a broad group of nations.
"If we have U.N. backing, it also becomes the U.N.'s problem," Luers said. "It's not the U.S. vs. Saddam Hussein. It's him against his neighbors."
To attack Iraq, though, the United States doesn't need the Security Council's blessing. According to the U.N. resolution passed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the war is not over until the United Nations verifies that Iraq has destroyed all weapons of mass destruction.
The United States and Britain used this as the justification for an airstrike in 1998 after Hussein refused to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. By then, the international coalition that first confronted Iraq had fragmented, and the United States feared that the Security Council would reject a request for a punitive attack.
Nonetheless, the United States would prefer the United Nations' blessing.
Although Bush plans to present evidence today of Iraq's "decade of defiance," showing that Baghdad has breached almost all of its international obligations, the president won't propose a new U.N. resolution, his aides say. That will likely fall to the British, Washington's major supporter on the Security Council. Behind the scenes, Bush will send top U.S. officials to lobby more reluctant council members to join the effort - or at least not block it.
For a new resolution to pass, there must be nine votes in favor and no veto by any of the five permanent members, which are the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia.
"I expect a new resolution - not by the end of the month, but in the coming weeks," said Solomon Passy, the foreign minister of Bulgaria, which holds the Security Council's rotating presidency.
Even so, Bush advisers have made clear that they don't have much faith that a new resolution or weapons inspections will persuade Iraq to toe the line.
"There have been plenty of ultimatums" given to Iraq, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on CNN earlier this week. "We can't continue to have the kind of defiance of the United Nations, the defiance of the international community, that we've had."
Maggie Farley is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.