LONDON: Wednesday's carnage in Basra is another twist in the downward spiral of violence endangering Iraq. It puts security back at the top of the agenda in the run-up to the long-heralded transfer of sovereignty at the end of June.
What use are the trappings of power if there is no guarantee of safety on the streets? The Basra car-bombings were well coordinated and perhaps foreign-inspired. First reports suggested they followed the pattern of Al Qaeda-style suicide attacks in other parts of the world.
They will be widely condemned in Iraq since far fewer Iraqis support attacks on their police than they do on occupation troops. But let us not forget the other source of insecurity in Iraq.
The United States has not yet lifted its threat to use force in Najaf to arrest the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a decision which could provoke heavy bloodshed. Nor has it drawn back from Fallujah, even after the slaughter of several hundred people.
Caught between the hammer of poorly targeted suicide bombs and the anvil of unguided American commanders, Iraqis are approaching formal sovereignty in a mood of understandable doubt.
There has been one small piece of good news. Washington has allowed the United Nations a key role in selecting the interim government which will take over on July 1. The plan, outlined in Baghdad by the UN's special adviser, Lakhdar Brahimi, is for the country's governing council to be dissolved. In its place would be a prime minister at the head of an interim government of technocrats rather than politicians.
The scheme is not a UN invention. It bears a strong similarity to what the Americans and British were considering back in March, as leaked to and reported in the Guardian at the time. But the fact that Brahimi took it up, bounced it off various groups of Iraq's civil society, and heard approving responses, gives it a much greater chance of being accepted.
The UN's respect among Iraqis is not as low as that of the occupation forces, as several polls have shown. The demise of the governing council will be a good thing. When it was formed last July, it had the potential for giving Iraqis a say in how their country was run.
But the council failed to win support from most Iraqis, mainly because the US allowed it little scope, but also through the incompetence and lack of authority of many of its members. It included too many exiles, particularly people like Ahmed Chalabi who had no constituency inside Iraq and lacked credibility because of their closeness to Washington's neo-conservatives and their eagerness for invasion.
The council also risked accentuating Iraqi divisions since it was chosen almost entirely on regional, ethnic and sectarian lines. The cabinet it appointed then reproduced those tendencies, with entire ministries being filled nepotistically with officials from the boss's party, tribe or region.
A new government of technocrats ought to have a better chance of performing well in the months before national elections are due to be held in January 2005. Brahimi is nothing if not a practised diplomat, and he balanced his endorsement of the US plan with some strong words of criticism of the US performance.
This was essential if the UN was to show it understood Iraqi feelings, but it also reflected Brahimi's genuine sense of shock over US behaviour in Fallujah - and its other mistakes.
He condemned Washington's Israeli-style overkill in Fallujah as collective punishment, in effect a war crime. He called for the US to charge or release the thousands of detainees it holds in what looks increasingly like Guantanamo-on-the-Tigris.
He criticized the sacking of honest army officers and the clumsy de- Baathification process, which has become a witch-hunt of Iraq's professions, leaving much-needed teachers, doctors and engineers without jobs.
The US has conceded that the UN will be the final arbiter in any disputes over who to pick for the interim government. Brahimi will shortly be returning to Baghdad with a similar mission to the one he had in 2001, when he held long consultations with Afghans and selected Afghanistan's post-Taliban cabinet.
He will need all the skill he can command to come up with a credible team. He must not be a front-man for the United States, or give the prime ministership to an American client. Thereafter, the US expects that the UN's job will be mainly technical, as it prepares the mechanism for elections and helps to monitor their conduct.
Can the UN do more on the political side after July? Much will depend on the UN's masters in the security council. It is clear that the US and Britain want a new resolution to bless the transfer of legal sovereignty to Iraqis, while also keeping US control over all security issues.
The result will be a sovereignty which is severely impaired, a bizarre situation in which an allegedly independent country's army is under foreign command on its own territory.
It is not too late to change this, since the Bush administration is running scared, electorally, on Iraq. Spain's new government believes the US will never hand political control of security to the UN, and is withdrawing its troops. Full marks for principle and for keeping faith with its voters, but other countries need not give up hope quite yet.
The US is in a weak position and if key members of the security council such as France, Russia and China stand firm, as they did before the invasion last year, there is still a slim chance.
The model is East Timor, where the security council initially mandated a "multinational force under unified command", the exact phrase which was reproduced in resolution 1511 on Iraq last October. Later, the council put the Timor force under UN supervision.
This did not mean they became blue-helmeted peace- keepers with a UN general in charge, but it entitled the UN administrator (who happened to be Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in the bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters last year) to give the foreign soldiers their political direction.
East Timor was not yet an independent country, but something similar could be done in Iraq. The security council could mandate a senior UN official to work with the Iraqi government in supervising the multinational force.
Even if it were still led by an American general, Iraqis and the UN would have the authority to tell the commander that sieges of cities and one-ton bombs dropped on gunmen in populated areas are not politically wise - quite apart from their morality.
Other nations might then be willing to join, not as junior partners of the United States, but as contributors to a shared Iraqi- and UN-controlled force, in which the US contingent could be much reduced.
Russia's military strategy in Chechnya is a crime and disgrace. But Moscow can argue it is acting on its own territory. Morally and politically, the Kremlin is wrong, and under international law its case is debatable. No such arguments apply to the US in Iraq. It is using excessive force on other people's soil, and it has no mandate to be there unless from the United Nations.
Now is the time for the majority of UN members to strengthen their control. If Iraq's interim government is to acquire more respect than the outgoing governing council had, it too should stand up to the Americans and lay down the rules.
The Americans have killed more civilians in one month in Fallujah than all the terrorist bombings of the past year, Wednesday's included. That surely is a signal that things must change. -Dawn/The Guardian News Service.