As the current talks at the United Nations Security Council in New York make clear, it is not going to be easy to find a way out of the mess in Iraq that will satisfy both the Iraqi people and international realpolitik.
The US, worried as it is about its own casualties, wants to finish the job it started. It is understandably wary of sharing responsibility, especially for security, with anyone. Britain, its crucial occupation ally, is less sure, particularly after the deaths of its soldiers in Basra last week. But as usual the UK is finding it difficult to say so.
UN personnel are angry that their visibility - and vulnerability - has not been matched by any commensurate governing responsibility. They have had no difficulty in finding allies in this cause among others on the Security Council.
The Iraqi interim governing council - appointed by the coalition to represent the Iraqi people - lacks, as currently constituted and supported, the legitimacy, authority or resources to do anything about anything. As for the people, on all available evidence most just want electricity, water, safe streets, jobs - and their country back.
Ultimately, as everyone acknowledges, Iraq's problems must be solved by Iraqis. But, forcefully as the argument may be made to Washington that sovereignty, not security, is the core issue, it is fanciful to think that the occupying powers, in the present environment, will just walk away.
They will argue, plausibly, that they cannot leave until national elections are held - and that the conditions for such elections will not exist for some time. The security situation has to stabilise, a democratic constitution has to be adopted and voters have to be registered. More controversially, they will argue that there must be some grounds for confidence that such elections will produce stable and representative political leadership.
Wider resistance will be almost impossible to contain if those elections are deferred for more than two years. But the bigger problem is how to control violence right now. It is currently coming from Ba'athist loyalists, nationalists, predominantly Sunni Islamists, tribal groups angry at cultural violations, criminal elements and Islamist and other militants from abroad.
These are all minority elements. But their attacks are getting uglier. And there is a real risk that these groups will become better organised and more united, that radical Shia will join them - and that support for violence will become majority sentiment.
The coalition's unilateralist approach is a dead end. The Coalition Provisional Authority, under Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator in Baghdad, will never be capable by itself of ruling Iraq. The interim governing council - a group of political leaders with weak popular following, ill-defined powers, no bureaucratic apparatus and a clumsy, nine-member rotating presidency - is neither able, nor seen by Iraqis as able, to share the responsibility. The coalition is likely to be no more successful than it has been in winning military, policing and financial support from other countries until it does something - quickly - genuinely to internationalise the transitional administration.
A solution, argued for in a report by my organisation, International Crisis Group ( www.crisisweb.org), is to have a three-way distribution of responsibility between the coalition authority, the Iraqi governing council and the UN - realistic enough for Washington, the wider international community and the Iraqi majority all to accept - embodied in a new Security Council resolution.
The coalition authority would retain primary authority for military security, civil law and order and restoring basic infrastructure. The US would continue to lead the military force but it would become a multinational force endorsed by the Security Council. A new international police force, also endorsed by the Security Council, would help to extract the military from a role for which it is conspicuously ill-suited.
The UN, as the institutional embodiment of international legitimacy, would be responsible for supervising the political transition: overseeing the Iraqi governing council and other transitional institutions, the constitution-making process and the organisation of elections. It would have particular responsibility for identifying a realistic timetable for adopting a constitution, holding national elections and ending the occupation.
The governing council would be responsible for all other matters of day-to-day governance, including social services, economic reconstruction and foreign relations. To play this role effectively, it will not only have to be properly empowered and resourced but also become - to the extent that this is achievable before national elections - more generally representative.
The current careful arithmetical apportionment of members between Sunnis and Shia, and Arabs and Kurds, is not as clever as it looks. For all the horrors of Iraq's recent history, strict sectarian and ethnic divisions have not been central to its political culture and it would be an unhappy start to a new era to make them so.
What the coalition occupation of Iraq has made possible, it has also so far failed to provide: genuine self-government, material well-being and security in the everyday lives of Iraqis.
It would be too much to ask Washington and London to reverse their course. But they surely have to change it.
26 August 2003
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2003