NEW YORK -- The war in Iraq has been a particularly painful event for the United Nations, whose prime objective for the more than half a century of its existence has been the avoidance of military confrontation.
The bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August prompted Secretary-General Kofi Annan to withdraw all U.N. personnel working there and to declare he will not reopen it until their security from terrorist attacks can be effectively addressed.
One of the organization's rising stars, Sergio Vieira de Mello, head of the U.N. mission in Baghdad, was killed in the bombing, which shattered the longtime assumption that the United Nations was accepted as a neutral force in world affairs.
Ahmad Fawzi, the veteran Egyptian diplomat who serves as chief aide to Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy who just returned from his mission in Iraq to negotiate the transfer of sovereignty to a new government, says of the impact of that event:
"Iraq in particular is where we discovered last year that we had become direct targets of terrorism. ... Up until that moment, we woke up in the morning and thought we were not; that we were protected by the blue flag [of the United Nations], that the neutrality of the United Nations protected it from such acts of terror.
"The same applies to the International Committee of the Red Cross. They were targeted too, and they too, up to that moment, thought they were protected by the symbol of the red cross. That has radically changed the way we operate and the way we think of ourselves."
There is a certain irony in this circumstance, inasmuch as the U.N. Security Council, prior to the invasion of Iraq, declined to give explicit sanction to it; most members of the world organization declined to join President Bush's artfully labeled "coalition of the willing."
There is irony also in the fact that Mr. Bush, after suggesting the United Nations was becoming irrelevant, has now gone to the world body seeking its assistance in meeting a June 30 deadline for an official end of the coalition's occupation and transfer of limited sovereignty to Iraqis.
Mr. Fawzi says it's uncertain whether the United Nations was targeted because of a mistaken terrorist view that it is too closely tied to the United States. During his recent visit to Iraq, he said, most ordinary citizens contacted said they believe perpetrators of attacks are mostly "foreign elements in cooperation with agents inside Iraq."
In any event, the United Nations has found itself on the receiving end of the violence it has long been dedicated to curtailing or ending.
For that reason, it would seem reasonable to expect a residue of resentment toward the United States for opening this particular can of worms and now turning to the United Nations to bail it out.
"There clearly has been a shift in the U.S. position," Mr. Fawzi says. "It's a welcome shift, and the U.N. is willing to help and to put its experience at the disposal of Iraq and the international community."
But, he goes on, "this is not an `I told you so' scenario. We are conscious of the difficulties that this organization and the member states went through before the war in Iraq. There were disagreements over the war in Iraq. Today we are trying to look forward and not backward. Today we are trying very hard to rally the international community behind the Iraqi people. ... There is no point in looking over the past and recriminations."
Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for Mr. Annan, agrees. "An Iraq as a failed state in the center of the Middle East would have consequences no one would want to imagine," he says. Deep divisions on the Security Council over how the war started are beginning to heal, he says, and further Security Council resolutions will be sought soon to implement the expanded U.N. role.
A final irony is that the reluctance of member states to involve themselves in the mess in Iraq without such further U.N. resolutions is an element now bringing the United States belatedly back to the principle of collective action in world affairs.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.