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Bush administration examining ways to change course in Iraq

WASHINGTON—Alarmed by mounting casualties and staggering costs in Iraq, a growing number of top Bush administration officials have concluded that the current U.S. strategy is unsustainable and are looking for ways to increase United Nations involvement, American officials and foreign diplomats said.

The sharp course corrections under consideration, they said, include creating a multinational U.N. peacekeeping force with continued U.S. military command, giving the world body a larger role in rapidly transferring governance back to Iraqis, and seeking greater international financial contributions.

The proposals would mark a dramatic departure for President Bush and his top aides, who went to war in Iraq without explicit U.N. approval and have insisted on tight American control of virtually every aspect of the postwar occupation.

None of the proposals has been adopted yet. Officials in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney and some civilian officials who work for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are resisting any broader international involvement in Iraq, which, in their view, would disrupt plans for an American-initiated remaking of the Middle East.

But senior uniformed military officers, along with Bush political director Karl Rove, are said to be aligning with State Department officials in arguing that the status quo in Iraq must be altered.

Bush himself is said to be uneasy about events in Iraq, but determined to see the mission through. American soldiers are being killed virtually every other day. The Pentagon's occupation costs are running at nearly $4 billion monthly.

"There's no way to pretend that the cost of this isn't rising, in human terms, in military terms and in economic terms," one senior official said. He and others spoke on condition of anonymity because the president has made no final decisions.

Within the administration "there's a deeper and wider debate than people might have expected (over) how to broaden the international engagement in Iraq," said a diplomat from a leading U.N. Security Council member.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage hinted at the U.S. willingness to share responsibility for the Iraq problem during an interview with regional newspapers earlier this week.

"There are several ideas that are being looked at," Armitage said, including "a multinational force under U.N. leadership," but with the U.N. commander an American general.

The idea, a senior official said, is for a command structure roughly similar to that in the 1950-53 Korean War, when the United Nations voted to assist South Korea in repelling North Korea's aggression. U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur led the multinational force.

Securing an agreement will take weeks of delicate negotiations between the United States and Britain on one hand and, on the other, permanent Security Council members such as France and Russia, who opposed the Iraq war and remain deeply suspicious of Washington's motives.

France, which has a Security Council veto and already has crossed swords with the United States over the Iraq war, has signaled that it will insist on more than cosmetic changes to the arrangement.

"A real change in approach is needed," Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said Thursday. "The eventual arrangements cannot just be the enlargement or adjustment of the current occupation forces. We have to install a real international force under a mandate of the United Nations Security Council."

The issue is expected to come to a head in mid-September, when Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell meet world leaders at the annual U.N. General Assembly.

From Bush's perspective, ceding some control to the United Nations could help bring several key Muslim nations on board, including Pakistan and Turkey. Both have considered substantial troop contributions in Iraq but, largely for domestic political reasons, have insisted on a substantial U.N. role.

"There's no choice but to go through the U.N.," one U.S. official said. "The key is what the terms of a new U.N. mandate would be; how to give the Turks and others political cover without compromising our long-term objectives in Iraq and the region."

Talks are under way with potential troop contributors about what concessions they need, the foreign diplomat said.

"What sort of changes might bring those countries in fully?" the diplomat said. "They don't want to be part of an occupying power."

To secure more peacekeeping troops, the adjustments being discussed go beyond military issues to whether the United Nations should take over responsibility for putting a new Iraqi government in place. That role is now being played by the Pentagon-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority.

On the security front, former U.S. diplomat James Dobbins said, Bush has three options: Boost the U.S. presence, seek more international help through the United Nations or accelerate efforts to turn over security duty to the Iraqis.

Dobbins, who has experience in postwar Bosnia and Afghanistan, said he favored a combination of all three approaches.

He estimated that restoring stability in Iraq would take at least two years with a peacekeeping force of 300,000 to 500,000 troops. There are currently about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, supplemented by about 22,000 from other countries.

"Security is an absolute prerequisite for progress in economic and political reform. Anything you do will ultimately be wasted or washed away if you don't have control of the security situation. It would be like sandcastles on a beach," said Dobbins, who's now at the policy research organization Rand Corp.

The impetus for considering changes in the Iraq occupation is in part political. Bush advisers, including Rove, are said to be concerned that the growing toll of dead and wounded American troops, coupled with any further terrorist attacks, could erode support for U.S. policy and the president's re-election.

A Gallup poll for USA Today and CNN this week found that while 63 percent of Americans said the war was worthwhile, 54 percent said the Bush administration didn't have a clear plan for postwar Iraq. The sentiment didn't appear to have damaged Bush's approval rating, which remained at 59 percent, unchanged for more than a month.

The poll, which interviewed 1,009 adults Monday and Tuesday, also found that Americans are divided over how many U.S. troops should be in Iraq: Thirty-six percent think the current deployment is adequate, 32 percent say some troops should be withdrawn, 15 percent say Bush should send more troops and 14 percent say all troops should come home. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised the Bush administration's willingness to consider greater U.N. involvement.

"The work being done by the Bush administration and the U.N. to continue exploring ideas and options for getting the U.N. more fully and completely engaged in Iraq should be encouraged," Hagel said Thursday. "The United States need not carry the enormous burden of rebuilding Iraq alone."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Ron Hutcheson and James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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