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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Under pressure to start withdrawing U.S. troops, the Bush administration wants the United Nations to play an expanded role in Iraq as a mediator both internally and with neighboring countries.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq who now represents Washington at the United Nations, wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times on Friday that the world body could "help internationalize the effort to stabilize the country."
"While reasonable people can differ on whether the coalition should have intervened against Saddam Hussein's regime, it is clear at this point that the future of Iraq will have a profound effect on the region and, in turn, on peace and stability in the world," Khalilzad wrote.
The U.S. overtures to the United Nations come as Bush and his generals appealed for more time to allow a surge in troop levels to bring stability to Iraq. The Democratic-led Congress has been pushing for a timetable to start withdrawing troops.
The United Nations has been deeply reluctant to work in Iraq since 23 of its top people were killed by a bomb at its Baghdad headquarters in August 2003.
But new U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, met U.S. President George W. Bush this week and promised U.N. help with rebuilding Iraq.
Khalilzad said Washington endorsed Ban's call for an expanded U.N. role. "The United Nations possesses certain comparative advantages for undertaking complex internal and regional mediation efforts," he said.
His remarks were in sharp contrast to the war of words between Washington and the United Nations in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion and in the years since then. Ban's predecessor Kofi Annan said later the invasion was "illegal."
Khalilzad noted that a new U.N. envoy for Iraq would be appointed in the coming weeks. "With the right envoy and mandate (the United Nations) is the best vehicle to address the two fundamental issues driving the crisis in Iraq," he said.
First, on the domestic side: "In the role of mediator, it has inherent legitimacy and the flexibility to talk to all parties, including elements outside the political process."
"Second, the United Nations is also uniquely suited to work out a regional framework to stabilize Iraq," he said.
"Several of Iraq's neighbors -- not only Syria and Iran but also some friends of the United States -- are pursuing destabilizing policies," he said. "The United States supports a new mandate that creates a United Nations-led multilateral diplomatic process to contain the regional competition that is adding fuel to the fire of Iraq's internal conflict."
Iraq has expressed concern about a major Turkish troop buildup on its northern border which Ankara, a NATO ally of Washington, has said comes in response to its concerns over Kurdish rebels from Turkey based over the border in Iraq.
There are also suspicions that several countries in the region, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are funding parties in the sectarian conflict between Sunni Arabs and Shi'ites that has killed tens of thousands of people.
The United Nations is already involved in the International Compact with Iraq, a partnership with Baghdad and the international community involving debt relief and other economic support. In May, Ban held a meeting with 60 nations, including Iraq's key debtors, in Sharm al-Sheikh.