NEW YORK - When President Bush launched his invasion of Iraq more than a year ago, he warned that the United Nations would become irrelevant in international affairs if it failed to sanction his military adventure.
It didn't, but today the American president is counting heavily on the diplomats and political technocrats in the edifice on the East River to pull off what his own foreign-policy counterparts failed on their own to achieve - stitching together a new Iraqi government.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, has just returned from Baghdad and will report to him and to the Security Council this week on the arrangements Mr. Brahimi has worked out to restore sovereignty to Iraqis by the agreed deadline of June 30.
A key to the deal is that the Bush-appointed American occupation czar, L. Paul Bremer III, and the U.S.-created Coalition Provisional Authority and Iraqi Governing Council all are to step aside on that date.
They are to be replaced by a U.N.-supervised "caretaker government" headed by an appointed prime minister, president and two vice presidents in place during May, comprised essentially of Iraqi technocrats "known for their honesty, integrity and competence," in Mr. Brahimi's words.
This arrangement appears to be bad news for longtime Iraqi exile, Ahmad Chalabi, shipped into the country and placed on the Coalition Provisional Authority with the apparent U.S. hope, as well as his own, that he would emerge as the leader of the new Iraqi government.
While Iraqi members of the outgoing authority and Governing Council will be eligible to serve in the caretaker regime, sentiment around the U.N. secretariat suggests that Mr. Chalabi, for both personal reasons and his identification with the Bush administration, will be looking for other labors come June 30.
The American presence in Iraq will shift to a newly named U.S. ambassador, John D. Negroponte, and to a huge new embassy in Baghdad, from which U.S. influence will be exerted on the transferred sovereignty.
Soon thereafter, the Brahimi plan, worked out with Iraqi civic as well as political leaders, calls for a national conference in July to elect a consultative assembly without legislative powers that will assist the caretaker government until a national assembly is elected in January 2005.
Even if all this is achieved, however, the United States will continue its critical role of providing security in a country it no longer officially will occupy. Iraqi sovereignty will thus be limited by the recognized need of the American military presence, as well as likely other U.S. influence from its embassy.
Because the United States insists that its forces must serve only under U.S. command, the caretaker government will accept this condition, for obvious political and security reasons.
In a break from the occupation policy imposed by Mr. Bremer, Mr. Brahimi has called for a loosening of the strict prohibition of former Baath Party members in the new regime, in both military and civil positions.
At a news conference before leaving Baghdad, Mr. Brahimi specifically observed that "it is difficult to understand that thousands upon thousands of teachers, university professors, medical doctors and hospital staffs, engineers and other professionals who are sorely needed in the country have been dismissed within the de-Baathification process, and far too many cases have yet to be reviewed."
In Iraq a few days ago, two American generals openly criticized the indiscriminate ban on service in the new Iraqi military of many officers of the old army, a prohibition that is ending.
In anticipation of the January elections, the United Nations already has teams experienced in facilitating popular elections in other countries touring Iraq seeking likely polling places and working with local officials on plans to ensure fair and open balloting. "If this framework is not in place by, say, the end of May," says Ahmad Fawzi, Mr. Brahimi's spokesman, "it will not be possible to conduct elections in January."
Also critical is the thorny question of security. Mr. Annan has reiterated that he is not going to reopen the U.N. mission, closed by a bombing in August, until the safety of U.N. personnel can be ensured to a satisfactory degree - far from achievable now.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.