After the handover of sovereignty in Iraq, the interim government of Iyad Allawi, the prime minister, is coming to terms with a daunting reality: it simply lacks the capacity and resources to address the country's many serious problems. For now, Iraqis are prepared to give Mr Allawi the benefit of the doubt - 80 per cent endorse his interim government. But support is already fraying and will erode quickly unless the security situation improves. The insurgency will continue to gain momentum unless Iraqis believe that a credible political process is under way, culminating in an end to occupation.
The setting up of a new United Nations mission in Iraq and the pending appointment by the UN secretary general of a special representative signals the UN's seriousness about assisting Iraq's political transition and reconstruction. While Security Council resolution 1546 gives the UN a mandate in Iraq, it also calls for a special security force to protect UN personnel. So far, however, only a few countries have volunteered troops.
Despite concerns about security, the UN mission will be established with a skeleton staff in Baghdad's Green Zone, the main base of the US-led coalition. UN assistance is urgently needed. Arrangements are already unravelling for the next milestone in Iraq's transition - a national conference involving up to 1,500 Iraqis from diverse ethnic and religious groups. UN officials who worked on the loya jirga assembly process for Afghanistan have valuable expertise that would help rescue plans for the conference.
The UN is also mandated to help organise Iraq's elections and assist in the drawing up of a permanent constitution. For these tasks, a much larger contingent of UN staff will be needed. About 200 UN personnel are waiting in Jordan for clearance to set up in Iraq. For now, they can work long distance to help draft electoral laws and advise Iraq's election commission. The UN will need an extensive in-country presence very shortly if it wants to help Iraqis conduct a population census and prepare the infrastructure for a nationwide ballot.
Mr Allawi is already under pressure for his decision this week to declare martial law. He has also stirred fierce controversy for his recent suggestion that elections might have to be postponed. He quickly backtracked and reaffirmed his commitment to holding elections by next January. But the subsequent martial law decree is clearly intended to signal he is in charge. The move may help Mr Allawi's position for now, but progress towards elections is critical to calm the concerns of sceptical Iraqis. A flawed poll - or worse, no elections - would rile Iraq's Arab Shia majority and ultimately delay the development of a constitution, which is essential to achieving a power-sharing balance between the country's ethnic and religious communities.
After last summer's devastating attack on the UN compound killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, then UN special representative, and 22 UN workers, Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, is rightly demanding adequate protection before sending UN personnel back in to harm's way. Nepal, Georgia and Ukraine may contribute troops comprising the core of a dedicated protection unit. Their forces might be able to assist with basic security, but close protection requires special capabilities.
The buck for protecting the UN in Iraq stops with the Bush administration. Washington proposed the special protection force in the first place. Given the importance of the UN's new role, the Pentagon should reassign troops or deploy a new brigade dedicated to protecting UN personnel.
Even with a robust protection force, UN staff will still be a prime target. Terrorists and elements of the former regime know that killing UN workers would cause the secretariat to suspend its operations. Driving the UN out of Iraq would be a big political victory for those wanting to undermine Iraq's transition.
Last year, the Bush administration accused the UN of irrelevance. Today it urgently needs its help to redeem the postwar fiasco in Iraq. Sending Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's Middle East troubleshooter, to Iraq put the UN on a slippery slope. Mr Annan should now proceed with great caution. In an environment as volatile as Iraq, the chances of success are slim. While the UN should be prepared to fulfill the mandate spelled out by the Security Council, Mr Annan should make clear the conditions for UN involvement. Ultimately, the US may seek a scapegoat and try to shift the blame for its failings.
The writer is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations
Copyright 2004 The Financial Times Limited