It is right that we should continue to argue over the route to war in Iraq. But it is more urgent that we address the continuing chaos, suffering and loss of life. The British military was very clear that the conflict would take no more than a few weeks. In my briefings, they talked of the need to prepare for very rapid success. And - despite claims to the contrary - the UN was well prepared to return to Iraq as soon as order was restored to take charge of emergency humanitarian needs.
The advice that I, and the Department for International Development, gave to the prime minister was that we should internationalize the reconstruction effort as quickly as possible. This was based on our experience in East Timor, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and also on our understanding of international law. I was delighted when the attorney general provided clear legal advice on the limitation of the authority of occupying powers, which strongly reinforced the case we were making.
The legal position is laid down in the Geneva convention and Hague regulations. They provide that occupying powers have a duty to keep order, keep civil administration functioning and provide for immediate humanitarian need. They have no powers to engage in major political, economic or constitutional reform. They also have no power to bring into being a sovereign government since they hold no sovereignty. Only the UN can do that. The attorney's advice concluded: "The lawfulness of any occupation after conflict has ended is still governed by the legal basis for the use of force... namely, Iraqi disarmament... the longer the occupation of Iraq continues, and the more the tasks undertaken by an interim administration depart from the main objective, the more difficult it will be to justify the lawfulness of the occupation."
Thus it was clear the right way forward was that the coalition focus on keeping order and that the UN humanitarian system restore food supplies, water and electricity. The security council needed to lift sanctions and appoint a special representative to establish an interim government and a route to elections, as had been done in Afghanistan. This would enable the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and IMF to provide support for the interim government's economic reform program. And it would ensure that all contracts were let transparently.
When the prime minister pressed me to remain a member of the government, he promised that the UN would be given the central role in reconstruction. I was much criticized for staying, but decided that although the war was unstoppable it was possible to organize a proper international effort to rebuild Iraq.
At the spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank in early April, I worked to persuade ministerial colleagues from France, Germany and other countries which had been opposed to the war that, whatever past differences, we should reunite to help Iraq reconstruct. The Bretton Woods institutions were desperately anxious not to be contaminated by the bitter divisions that were festering in New York, and keen to find a way to support Iraq with the approval of all their members.
They made clear they needed the UN to play its role in bringing into being a legitimate government with which they could work - both for legal reasons and because it is impossible to lend to a government that cannot bind its successors. The ministerial communiqués from the spring meetings set out an international willingness to engage in this way.
But the US was not interested in internationalizing reconstruction. It had established the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) in the Pentagon only a couple of months before the conflict was to begin. It was led by retired general Jay Garner. ORHA was immediately bogged down in Washington politics and the squabble between the Pentagon and state department over who was to choose the new Iraqi administration. There was a complete failure to prepare for the Geneva convention obligations. The British military did take these obligations more seriously and the attorney general proposed that British staff seconded to ORHA be protected by a memorandum of understanding on the legal rights of occupying powers. But the US brushed the idea aside and it was quietly dropped.
The prime minister did press President George Bush to commit to a "vital role" for the UN at the Hillsborough meeting and President Bush obligingly said the appropriate words. But it was increasingly clear that the US would not agree an appropriate UN role. The US was sneeringly hostile to the UN, arguing that it was not willing to undertake the cost of military action and then to hand over Iraq to the UN. Jack Straw talked shockingly of France and Germany having made the wrong call and not being allowed to "get their snouts in the trough".
The prime minister therefore took personal charge of the drafting of security council resolution 1483. This was passed on May 22. It recognized the coalition as occupying powers and, very unusually, gave them equal authority with the UN in establishing the Iraqi interim authority. In practice even this resolution has been breached with Paul Bremer, the US administrator who has taken over from Gen Garner, making the decisions with the UK and UN trotting along behind.
And now, after months of chaos and loss of life, there is increasing worry in Washington that the US is carrying too much of the financial and military burden in Iraq. There is also mounting public concern about the number of US soldiers who are being killed and injured. A recent mission of experts commissioned by the Pentagon has strongly recommended that the US should work with the G7, the World Bank and the UN. India, Pakistan, and Germany among others have been asked to send peacekeepers. The response from almost all countries is that they will do so only if the UN is given a clearer mandate to lead the reconstruction.
And thus we come full circle. The law, the UN and the international community were pushed to one side. Four months later, after much destruction, suffering and loss of life, Washington is considering a return to the security council in order to strengthen the UN role and widen international engagement. If the prime minister had only had more courage, reconstruction in Iraq would almost certainly be more advanced and the US and UK at less risk of getting bogged down in an unpopular and costly occupation.
Just as the UK could have played an honorable role in refusing to support military action until the Blix inspection process had been completed, the PM could have insisted on honoring his legal obligations and best policy advice on reconstruction. But at this stage the US wanted to minimize the UN role and our prime minister was not willing to challenge them.
· Clare Short is the former international development secretary.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003