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U.S. May OK U.N.-Sponsored Multinational Force in Iraq

By Douglas Jehl

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

The Bush administration has signaled for the first time that it might be willing to allow a multinational force in Iraq to operate under the sponsorship of the United Nations as long it is led by an U.S. commander.

The idea was described by Richard L. Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, as just “one idea being explored” in discussions at the United Nations. It was first hinted at publicly last week by Kofi A. Annan SM ’72, the U.N. secretary general.

Armitage’s remarks, made on Tuesday to regional reporters and released by the State Department on Wednesday, marked a potential shift in course for the administration, which has until now insisted that all military, economic and political matters in Iraq remain under total U.S. control. Allowing the United Nations to have a leadership role would be intended to win support of the Security Council for a new mandate authorizing the U.S.-led occupation of the country.

In his remarks, Armitage declined to discuss the plans in any detail, saying, “I don’t think it helps to throw them out publicly right now.” But he described the arrangement under consideration as “a multinational force under U.N. leadership” in which “the American would be the U.N. commander.”

On Monday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked whether he could envision U.S. troops fighting under U.N. command. His answer: “I think that’s not going to happen.” But he went on to rule out only “a blue-hatted leadership” -- meaning by the United Nations, whose troops wear blue helmets -- over a peacekeeping force in Iraq.

The Pentagon has historically opposed any arrangement in which U.S. troops are not under U.S. command, and Rumsfeld has expressed opposition to putting the current U.S. force in Iraq under U.N. oversight.

But administration officials said the Somalian force in place in the early 1990s, however flawed from a political standpoint, might at least provide an administrative model. In that case, the U.N. force was put under the command of an U.S. general who maintained direct control of U.S. troops.

A State Department official said that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had discussed the possibility of U.N. sponsorship with Annan last week during a meeting in New York. The official said the discussions had the full support of the White House, but said no decisions were expected until late September, when foreign ministers gather in New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

Whether any arrangement that might be worked out for U.N. sponsorship of military operations would be more than a fig leaf was unclear Wednesday. Pentagon officials would almost certainly would resist any relinquishment of military command and control to U.N. authorities, but Russia, France, and other permanent members of the Security Council might well seek some kind of a voice in decision making as a price for a new mandate.

The apparent flexibility on Iraq policy appears to reflect deepening concern within the administration about the unwillingness of many other countries, including France and Russia, to contribute troops and money to the U.S.-led effort in Iraq.