United Nations The Security Council voted unanimously Friday to expand the U.N. role in Iraq and opened the door for the world body to promote talks to ease Iraq's sectarian bloodshed.
The broader U.N. initiatives on Iraq - which could begin next month - were supported by Washington in an apparent bid to bring together Iraqi factions and neighboring countries under an international umbrella rather than struggling on its own to bridge the many religious, ethnic and strategic battles opened by the five-year-old war.
The Bush administration is also seeking ways to boost the embattled government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has been paralyzed by internal political feuds.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hopes to organize a meeting of foreign ministers from the region at U.N. headquarters in late September on the sidelines of an annual General Assembly meeting. The United Nations will also be urging discussions among different Iraqi factions, ethnic and religious groups, he said.
"A peaceful and prosperous future is for Iraqis themselves to create, with the international community lending support to their efforts," Ban told the council after the vote. "The United Nations looks forward to working in close partnership with the leaders and people of Iraq to explore how we can further our assistance under the terms of this resolution."
The resolution authorizes the United Nations to promote political talks among Iraqis and a regional dialogue on issues including border security, energy and refugees as well as help tackling the country's worsening humanitarian crisis, which has spilled into neighboring countries.
The United States and Britain, co-sponsors of the resolution, believe the world body should do more to use its perceived neutrality to promote dialogue on Iraq.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. envoy to Iraq, has said, for example, that Iraq's top Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, won't talk to the Americans but he will talk to the U.N. envoy, Ashraf Qazi.
Khalilzad said the unanimous support for the resolution "underscores the widespread belief that what happens in Iraq has strategic implications not only for the region, but for the entire world."
But Khalilzad stressed that the resolution is not a substitute for the U.S. commitment to Iraq.
"The United States will continue to shoulder all of its responsibilities to assist Iraq's government and people," he said. "We are fully dedicated to success in Iraq, and our commitments to Iraq, to the region, to the U.N. and to the rest of the international community remain."
Iraq's U.N. Ambassador Hamid Al Bayati said his country recognizes that all the challenges should be the government's responsibility. "We, however, cannot achieve it without the assistance of the international community represented by the United Nations," he added.
For the United Nations, however, ramping up its presence remains a highly sensitive issue.
The United Nations pulled out of Iraq in October 2003 after two bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and a spate of attacks on humanitarian workers. After Friday's vote, the secretary-general and many council members recalled the upcoming anniversary of the first bombing, on Aug. 19, 2003, which killed the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 others.
The U.N. allowed 35 international staffers to return in August 2004, but the ceiling remains low, currently 65, because of security concerns. Last week, the U.N.'s top political official said the U.N. expects to raise the ceiling to 95 by October. Hours later, however, the U.N. Staff Council called on the secretary-general to pull all U.N. personnel out of the country until security improves.
While Ban said Friday that the United Nations "cannot shy away" from its responsibility to help Iraq because of the violence, he said staff security will remain "a paramount concern." He urged the General Assembly to approve additional funds for secure housing for U.N. staff.