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Here We Go Again At The U.N.

In his latest Diplomatic Dispatch, CBS News State Department Reporter Charles Wolfson tells the behind-the-scenes story of the U.N.'s recent aid-for-Iraq vote.

One might have thought that getting the U.N. Security Council to approve new authority for the oil-for-food program, which provides food and medicine for perhaps 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people, would be something everyone could agree on fairly easily. Well, that would be wrong.

It took a week of tough negotiations and at least half a dozen drafts before the Security Council worked out a way for the Secretary General to administer the oil-for-food program in Iraq for the next month and a half.

From the beginning, the main sticking point was some unfinished business left over from the diplomatically brutal debates that took place in the runup to the war. Several nations, chiefly Russia in this case, did not want to have language in the resolution that appeared to legitimize the military action taken by the U.S. and Britain, action which ultimately was taken without U.N. authority in the view of a number of Security Council members.

There was some good news in this round of political and diplomatic wrangling. Germany, which had opposed military action, took the lead in working out the ultimate compromise. And France, which had threatened to use its veto against a resolution to prevent U.N.-sanctioned military action, worked more positively on this resolution. In the end, the resolution passed unanimously, gaining even Russian and Syrian support. But this diplomatic success should be seen only as a temporary, if much needed, sign of diplomatic healing.

One of the two main sticking points at the end was how to deal with new contracts in the multi-billion dollar program. Even as the debate carried on, $2.4 billion in contracts were already in the pipeline. Were they retractable? How many were nearing delivery? Which goods were most needed and how would the fighting impact the delivery dates? All these aspects were debated, but in the end no one wanted to act against the wishes of Secretary General Kofi Annan, into whose hands the temporary authority to make decisions would be given.

The other issue of contention was over what language would be used to refer to American and British authorities with whom the U.N. will now have to deal on every issue when it comes to running Iraq, even as Saddam Hussein remains in power. Depending on one's political point of view, the language would or would not be seen as legitimizing the military action taken.

Washington was willing to go with the phrase "relevant authorities" or "whoever is in perceived authority" to apply to the U.S. and U.K. Russia's opening suggestion was "belligerent occupants," an obvious non-starter for the Bush and Blair administrations.

In the end, Washington agreed to drop "all relevant authorities" and did not oppose including language which referred to the legal obligations the U.S. now assumes, under international law as an occupying power.

One diplomat at the U.N. sees all this as a mere diplomatic skirmish. "We had a hard enough time getting the Russians to talk about putting humanitarian goods into Iraq. We can't expect to start discussing future issues like oil and leadership and control. The reality is the current government (of Saddam Hussein) will have to fall before we talk about other issues."

Secretary of State Colin Powell, testifying before Congress this week, did not mince words when asked about who would be in charge of Iraq's immediate future. "There is great utility in having the U.N. play a role," Powell said, but he added, "We didn't take on this huge burden with our coalition partners not to be able to have significant, dominating control over how it unfolds in the future."

By Charles M. Wolfson