PARIS - Seeking to put months of trans-Atlantic acrimony behind it, the United Nations Security Council voted overwhelmingly yesterday to lift sanctions against Iraq and grant the United States and Britain broad powers to rule the devastated nation until a new Iraqi government can take over.
Despite misgivings expressed by several member states, the Security Council voted 14-0 to release the Iraqi people from the burden of economic sanctions originally imposed to punish Saddam Hussein, the deposed Iraqi strongman, for invading Kuwait in 1990.
The 15th council member, Syria, which strongly opposed the U.S.-led war, did not vote and left its seat empty. But Syria later said it would have voted yes if it had been given more time to consider the issue.
The U.N. decision marked a significant diplomatic victory for President Bush, who failed in February and March to persuade the Security Council to endorse the Iraq war. The Iraq standoff provoked bitter rifts between Washington and longtime allies France and Germany. China and Russia also opposed the U.S.-led invasion.
"This is a wonderful day for the people of Iraq," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was in Paris to attend a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Eight industrialized nations. "Now they see, I hope, with a very, very overwhelming vote, the United Nations as a group, through the Security Council, coming to assist them."
Powell, the first senior White House official to visit France since Paris led opposition to the Iraq war, noted that all was not yet forgiven as far as the Bush administration was concerned. But France's decision to vote for the new U.N. resolution "is a step in the right direction," he said.
"Does it mean that the disagreements of the past simply are totally forgotten?" Powell said to reporters. "No, that was not a very pleasant time for any of us, and we have to work our way through that."
At its core, the new U.N. resolution endorses the right of the United States and Britain, as the occupying powers in Iraq, to administer the country "until an internationally recognized, representative government is established by the people of Iraq."
That baseline demand of Washington and London still troubles France, Germany and Russia. But ultimately the Bush administration agreed to more than 90 revisions.
"This resolution is a compromise," Germany's U.N. ambassador, Gunther Pleuger, said in New York.
Most urgently for Iraq, the U.N. resolution resolves the uncertain legal status of the country's vast oil reserves and clears the way for sales of millions of barrels that have backed up in pipelines and storage facilities as ordinary Iraqis were forced to wait in gasoline lines for days at a time.
The proceeds of Iraq's oil sales, previously controlled by the United Nations, will be deposited in a Iraqi development fund that will be administered by the United States and Britain to rebuild the nation's infrastructure. But the United Nations and other international bodies, as part of the compromise on the resolution, will monitor and audit the operation of the oil fund.
Meanwhile, the oil-for-food program, under which the United Nations issued contracts for basic humanitarian goods for Iraqi civilians to ensure they were not diverted by the Hussein government, will be phased out over six months. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will review $10 billion in supply contracts, many held by Russian companies.
Although Washington's new Iraq coordinator, L. Paul Bremer III, will still pull most of the strings in Baghdad, the U.N. resolution grants the Security Council some degree of involvement in the process of governing Iraq and forming an interim Iraqi authority. Annan is to appoint a representative to work alongside Bremer.
Moreover, the White House agreed to allow the Security Council to review the joint U.S.-British administration of Iraq in 12 months.
"The United Nations is back in the game," French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said late Wednesday, on the eve of the U.N. vote.
"The war that we did not want, and the majority of the council did not want, has taken place," Germany's Pleuger said at the United Nations. "We cannot undo history. We are now in a situation where we have to take action for the sake of the Iraqi people."
Syria explained its absence from the meeting with a statement read to the council by Deputy Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad seven hours after the vote. Syria wanted more time to study the proposal, the statement said, and would have voted with the other 14 countries if given the time. But Syria reaffirmed its strong opposition to the U.S.-backed "illegitimate war" in Iraq.
The Security Council also decided to shield Iraq until 2007 from repayment claims on its estimated $400 billion in foreign debt, most of it run up by Hussein to buy weapons and much of it owed to Russia. That deferment was a substantial concession by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
"Definitely, it was a compromise," the Russian U.N. ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, told fellow Security Council members, explaining Russia's decision to vote for the resolution. "The significance is primarily that it creates an international legal basis for joint efforts to be made by the entire international community to deal with the crisis."
Howard Witt is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.