President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged the U.N. Security Council on Thursday to set aside political differences and resume the delivery of tons of food for Iraqi civilians that have been stalled by concerns over who will be in charge of postwar Iraq.
"More than half the Iraqi people depend on [the U.N.] program as their sole source of food," Bush said. "This urgent humanitarian issue must not be politicized."
The two leaders, after an informal summit at the president's Camp David retreat, papered over differences in their visions for running Iraq if the U.S.-led military operation succeeds in deposing Saddam Hussein.
That larger issue has threatened to derail the delivery of as much as $2.5 billion in food and $8.5 billion in other goods already purchased and shipped to Iraq under the U.N. oil-for-food program. Delivery of the aid was suspended when the war began last week, and aid workers warn that a humanitarian crisis is brewing.
After more than a week of haggling, the Security Council agreed on a draft resolution Thursday to transfer authority to run the oil-for-food program from the Iraqi government to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The council is expected to vote on the resolution today.
Annan suspended the program and withdrew international U.N. staff the day before the war began, cutting off aid to the two-thirds of Iraq's 24 million people who rely on the program for food and medicine.
The surprisingly bitter fight over what the United States and Britain thought would be a straightforward resolution to resume the relief program revealed the depth of the differences that remain at the U.N. over the war -- and the politically charged disputes to come.
Looming as the next, much larger fight is the reconstruction of Iraq, presuming that Hussein's regime falls, and the U.N.'s role in that process. On this issue, as in the prelude to the war, Blair again finds himself trying to bridge the sharp divide between the United States and France, Russia and Germany.
Blair said as recently as Tuesday that the U.N. should be "centrally involved" in reconstructing and administering Iraq.
But he seemed to step back from that position Thursday to one closer to the Bush administration's. The White House has indicated that the U.N. has a role to play, but not a central one in forming a new Iraqi government.
"We will work with the U.N., our allies and partners and bilateral donors," Blair said in a brief question-and-answer session with reporters at Camp David. "We will seek new Security Council resolutions to ... endorse an appropriate post-conflict administration for Iraq."
Bush administration officials have said that when the war is over, they plan to sponsor a kind of constitutional congress for Iraq and transfer power directly from U.S. military commanders to an interim Iraqi authority -- much as was done in Afghanistan.
"The form of this government will be chosen by the Iraqi people, not imposed by outsiders," Bush said.
Under the administration's scenario, the U.N. would be involved in providing humanitarian relief and would give its imprimatur to the new government that would emerge from the interim authority.
However, France and Russia want the U.N. to take the lead role in administering Iraq after the war. That would include sending in peacekeepers and presiding over a transfer of power, much as the U.N. did in East Timor.
"The U.N. involvement in Iraq cannot be subordinate to the coalition" led by the United States that is waging the war, said Sergei Lavrov, Russian ambassador to the U.N.
Others say the U.N. must retain its independence and not simply lend an aura of legitimacy to a U.S.-picked government.
"It is in the interest of everyone -- the coalition, the Security Council and the United Nations -- to have the U.N. play a totally independent role, not in a position of subordination to anyone," said Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, French ambassador to the U.N.
Security Council members also fear that the United States and Britain will take the victors' spoils -- namely reconstruction contracts and access to oil -- and leave it to the U.N. to deal with postwar problems.
For the oil-for-food program to resume, the Security Council must pass the resolution giving Annan authority to administer the program directly and bypass the now-paralyzed Iraqi government.
France, Russia and Germany had objected to clauses stating that the U.N. should coordinate with "relevant authorities," a term they feared would legitimize a U.S.-installed government.
Diplomats managed to resolve political differences by changing or dropping sensitive words in the resolution, and pushing the real issue -- who will run and rebuild postwar Iraq -- onto the back burner.
U.S. officials have said the postwar congress would be attended by Iraqis from all over the country and abroad, representing all of the country's ethnic and tribal groups. The gathering would choose a form of government and organize local and, eventually, national elections.
The U.S. officials have said that Iraqi exiles should participate in this process, but that to take a role in the government they would need to earn the support of their countrymen in Iraq.
Blair's visit with Bush was organized to give the two leaders -- who appear to enjoy a warm personal relationship -- as much unstructured time as possible.
They had a social dinner Wednesday, and Blair spent the night at Camp David, a privilege reserved for only a few foreign leaders. The pair made a four-way phone call Thursday morning to leaders of two other allied nations: Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.
After concluding his meetings with Bush in the afternoon, Blair traveled to New York to consult briefly with Annan at the U.N. before heading back to Britain.
Reynolds reported from Washington, Farley from the United Nations.