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A bit late but still important

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President Bush's direct application to the United Nations for help in Iraq on Tuesday was a bit late in coming, but it was nonetheless important.

The ideal time to ask for that help would have been directly after the president declared the military conflict to be over. A worldwide effort at reconstruction would have lent a greater sense of legitimacy to the reconstruction that followed.

Not that this would have pre-empted terrorist strikes against the occupiers. Terrorists have treated the United Nations just as rudely as they have U.S. troops. And that is why the United Nations ought to be willing now, even belatedly, to lend its support.

In the end, despite all of the hard feelings surrounding the U.S. decision to proceed in Iraq without Security Council approval, the civilized world needs the United Nations, and the United Nations needs to be involved in Iraq. The issues to be resolved there are important to the peace and stability of the entire world.

The United Nations also needs the United States, its largest, wealthiest and most powerful member.

The tensions caused by the U.S. decision to remove the Iraqi regime will not go away easily. Secretary-General Kofi Annan made pointed remarks Tuesday about the pre-emptive attack, and the French, in particular, do not seem eager to lend support. It took a measure of courage for Bush to return to the general assembly to ask for help.

But at least all sides are venting at the United Nations, which means all sides are committed to the future of that organization as a forum for airing and attempting to solve the world's problems.

Bush is right. The transition to a democratic, representative government in Iraq must be deliberate and orderly. It can't be rushed, the way the French and the Germans seem to favor. But worldwide support toward the creation of a constitution and toward the defeat of terrorist forces would help ensure that the new Iraq is quickly assimilated into the community of legitimate nation states.

We suspect much of the real work at the United Nations will take place behind the scenes. On Tuesday, anonymous sources already were quoting French President Jacques Chirac as having told Bush the French "won't stand in the way." If that means the Iraqi people will be given first consideration, it is an encouraging sign, indeed.