With the August 19 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, and with the deaths of twenty-three people so far–including the chief of the UN mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello–the troubled US occupation of Iraq has evolved into a tragedy not just for the Iraqi people but for the international community. Indeed, the deteriorating security in Iraq is rapidly becoming a threat to coalition forces as well as to the peace and stability of the Middle East. It therefore calls for urgent UN Security Council action aimed at replacing the Coalition Provisional Authority with a broader and more legitimate UN mandate.

By choosing to smash an already failing and fractured society, the United States has unleashed chaos and disorder it cannot control. As UN officials warned just before the bombing of the UN headquarters, if a legitimate government is not established in Iraq soon, the growing anarchy could overtake even the best efforts of coalition forces and eventually engulf the entire region.

The Bush Administration has alternately blamed remnants of the Baath regime and Islamist terrorists. But the problem is much larger than either of those threats. Coalition forces are now confronted with a range of distinct yet overlapping problems: an increasingly well-organized guerrilla movement; continued lawlessness and disorder in many parts of the country; growing popular discontent and disgust at the US failure to provide security and restore basic services; the beginnings of an ethnic war between the Kurds and the Turkmens in the north and between Shiites and Sunnis in the center; and an expanding number of Islamic jihadists, who have come to Iraq from all over the Middle East to fight the Western infidels. And there is also the growing strength of radical Shiite clerics, who are waiting for a chance to rally their followers to some form of Islamic theocracy.

This complex and worrying picture presents no good options for US policy. Increasing the number of American troops, as Senator John McCain and others have suggested, would further inflame the Iraqi people and is no answer to the need for more police, more technicians, more administrators and, above all, more legitimacy. On the other hand, withdrawing American troops before a competent representative government is in place would leave the country on the verge of civil war and at the mercy of extremists of all political and ethnic stripes. Adding more international troops to the coalition to free American forces, as the Bush Administration proposes, would do little to change the complexion of the American occupation or the dangerous dynamic in Iraq.

The least bad option, then, is to internationalize the administration of Iraq not by adding international troops but by establishing a clear timetable and legal authority for turning over Iraq’s administration first to a UN mandate and a truly multinational force–and then to the Iraqi people. The United States must bear most of the cost of rebuilding the country, but it must also relinquish control to a legitimately constituted UN transitional authority if it wants a stable Iraq. As French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has correctly argued, we urgently need to move Iraq from the logic of occupation to the logic of restoring its sovereignty. This is what Vieira de Mello was trying to do, albeit in a slow and painfully indirect way, before his death. He and his aides had been tireless go-betweens for the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi people, and for the CPA and its hand-chosen Governing Council of Iraq, convincing chief administrator Paul Bremer that the GC had to be more than just an advisory body. He and his aides were also working hard to get more Arab and international support for the council, visiting Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, and pleading its case with other UN Security Council members.

But the Bush Administration presented obstacles to those efforts at every turn, refusing to delegate real power to the Governing Council or to cede greater authority to the UN in order to win the support of other countries like France, Germany, Turkey and India.

The Bush Administration’s response to the UN bombing is to use the deaths of Vieira de Mello and his colleagues to shame other countries into sending more troops and money to Iraq–without giving them a say in the occupation. But the shame is on the White House, not only for its crass opportunism but for its refusal to make a real international effort possible. The Administration wants to spread the burden while keeping Iraq as its trophy. But only by giving it up can the United States win the international support the coalition forces so desperately need. Only by accepting a legitimate UN mandate for restoring Iraqi sovereignty will it make the region safe from the forces of chaos and extremism that its occupation has unleashed.