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Tuesday, August 19

Bush faces crucial question in Iraq: Is it time to get help?

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - With the devastating bombing of the United Nations building in Baghdad on Tuesday, President Bush is now faced with either convincing Americans and the international community that the U.S.-dominated coalition in Iraq can still rebuild the nation, or admit that it's time to get help.

Thus far, the administration has been unwilling to allow the United Nations a central role there, which many potential allies have said is necessary before committing significant numbers of troops. Nor has the administration actively encouraged NATO to step in. Only Britain has committed a sizable force.

Without strong U.S. control over the rebuilding, the Bush administration fears that Iraq could go the way of Bosnia or Sierra Leone where the United Nations' record of peacekeeping has been less than laudable.

In his brief statement after the bombing, Bush gave little indication as to where he might be heading. He made references meant to rally the international community, but said nothing to indicate any change in policy.

The perpetrators, Bush said, ``are the enemies of every nation that seeks to help the Iraqi people.''

Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, echoed that, saying he hoped the United Nations will continue its mission ``with even more vigor,'' but did not indicate that there would be any change in the authority structure.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said the world body would not be deterred in Iraq, but was quick to point out that ``the primary responsibility for that compound is with the coalition forces.''

That fact will not fade away quietly on Capitol Hill.

In the coming weeks as Congress reconvenes from its August recess, Bush is likely to take considerable heat from lawmakers who have been imploring him to broaden the international presence in Iraq for months.

In a striking 97-0 vote last month, the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution asking Bush to approach NATO for help on the ground in Iraq with a peacekeeping force similar to the one deployed in the Balkans.

``This is not just a problem for the U.S., but for the whole world,'' Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday. ``The sooner we make security the top agenda item, and utilize sufficient American and international resources to achieve it, the faster we can help Iraqis improve their lives and bring home our troops.''Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain was part of a congressional delegation whisked out of Baghdad after Tuesday's bombing.

"We may need more people, more types of people - people trained in combat skills,'' said McCain, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. ``The composition of the force probably has to change and the numbers will have to be larger. We need a lot more money and we need to increase the size of our military."

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was also in the delegation. She had been scheduled to meet with the U.N.'s top representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in the blast.

"We need to redouble our efforts beyond our U.S. coalition,'' Cantwell said. ``This won't be the last incident we see.''

There are about 145,000 American troops in Iraq along with 11,000 British forces. Together they make up the vast majority of the coalition presence there. Defense officials have said troop levels will probably have to remain in the 145,000 to 160,000 range for up to a year or longer.

Until Tuesday's bombing, the administration had been insisting that coalition forces, which were being attacked almost daily, had turned a corner and were moving toward restoring stability and progress.

That will be a difficult case to make anytime soon.

The U.N. headquarters bombing followed a series of increasingly sophisticated and aggressive attacks against U.S. forces in and near Baghdad. Some of the recent attacks involved mortar shelling, indicating that the insurgents clearly have more than just small arms and grenades at their disposal.

U.S. intelligence also indicates that the Iraqi insurgents are being aided by fighters from neighboring Syria, Iran and Jordan and possibly by al-Qaida terrorists, increasing concerns that the situation in Iraq could be destabilizing.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan, where several thousand U.S. troops are stationed, is trending the same direction as Iraq, reinforcing doubts that the administration is fully aware of what it has undertaken in the two Muslim nations with a combined population of more than 50 million.

On Sunday in southern Afghanistan, hundreds of insurgents in trucks attacked a police post, igniting a firefight that killed 22 people.

Bush has not been opposed to help in Iraq from other countries. Indeed, the State Department and Pentagon have vigorously courted it, but with little success. That's in large part because many potential allies are not willing to commit a significant number of troops unless the United Nations is given significant authority so it doesn't appear foreign forces are merely doing America's bidding.

U.N. Resolution 1483, passed in late May, grants the United States control over Iraq's economy and its political process until an internationally recognized government can take over.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has said most countries do not feel they have sufficient mandate to go into Iraq under Resolution 1483 and favor a second resolution.

There are no indications thus far that NATO would reject working under U.S. command. But that would give the appearance that the United States is merely pushing its agenda behind the veneer of an international alliance.A second U.N. resolution would go a long way in defusing that as well.

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(Contributing: GNS reporters Erin Kelly and Sergio Bustos)