Washington’s refusal to recognise the authority of the Shia leader Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi, who has established a council to govern the capital, and its off-hand treatment of other political and religious leaders has not helped to endear the invading forces to the people of Baghdad. US President Bush has said he ‘love[s] the stories about people saying, ‘Isn’t it wonderful to be able to express our religion, the Shia religion, on a pilgrimage this weekend,” but it is clear the US administration is uneasy with the political overtones of the religious gatherings marking the Ashura festival. Washington is particularly concerned with the influence on certain Shia groups of Iran, which it has warned not to intervene ‘in Iraq’s road to democracy’ (see Cover Story).

However, the US has made clear from the start that it has no desire to maintain a long-term military presence in Iraq – not least because of the strain on the American taxpayer. Under plans drawn up by the Pentagon, a Nato force along the lines of the K-For deployment in Kosovo will take over the main security role in Iraq. In contrast to the earlier clashes in the UN Security Council, the 19 member countries of the Nato alliance have reached an agreement in principle to the plan after France withdrew earlier objections. The US is planning to convene a second meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders on 26 April to discuss the make-up of a future civil government.

The UN has yet to gain any central role in the temporary administration or long-term reconstruction of Iraq. The US has even suggested that Nato replace the UN in taking the lead role in weapons inspections, leaving chief weapons inspector Hans Blix out in the cold. Blix has said he is prepared to return to Iraq immediately, and that any inspections teams other than his own would lack international legitimacy. ‘They’re operating under the UN charter, article 100, not taking any instructions from any individual governments and no government being allowed to give them instructions either, and this is the sort of added value that you have in international inspections,’ he said on 22 April.

Washington’s key allies remain concerned about the lack of any UN involvement in the reconstruction process. According to diplomatic sources, the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office is drafting as many as six resolutions to be put before the UN Security Council, encompassing different aspects of the future political and economic administration of Iraq. One of the main considerations is the oil-for-food programme, the principal economic lifeline of the Iraqi people. A resolution transferring the authority for humanitarian supply contracts to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expires on 12 May. The executive director of the UN Office of the Iraq Programme, Benon Sevan, has called for an extension to the mandate but has warned that it will take several months before all outstanding contracts under the programme can be processed, releasing some $10,000 million in total. A further $6,000 million worth of contracts have been approved but cannot be paid for until oil exports resume (see Iraq reconstruction, pages 6-7).