by Bob Herbert

New York

The United States has tried again and again to get help from the United nations as a way of legitimizing its tragic misadventure in Iraq. But the UN, which was founded in 1945 to foster international cooperation as a way of promoting peace, is following the quiet guidance of its secretary general, Kofi Annan, whose response to the latest U.S. entreaty has been a polite but firm no.

At a private lunch last week with members of the Security Council, the secretary general made it clear that there was no chance he would go along with a U.S proposal to have the United Nations assist in the effort to rebuild and reestablish security in Iraq even as the United States retains full control of the country.

"The U.S. would like to have its cake and eat it," said a diplomat who attended the lunch. "It wants to fly the UN flag to demonstrate to Iraqis and others that it is no longer an occupying power. But the U.S. would still be the occupying power because it would still be ruling the country."

The latest American request, a proposed Security Council resolution calling for a multinational security force in Iraq, is going nowhere, officials said. The word Thursday was that the U.S. might well abandon it.

There is a widespread feeling at the UN that the policies of the United States - its invasion and occupation of Iraq, its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its frequently contemptuous attitude toward the UN in particular and international cooperation in general - have made the Middle East and parts of the rest of the world substantially more dangerous, rather than less.

There is an especially emotional quality to discussions with UN diplomats about these matters because of the two suicide bomb attacks at the UN headquarters in Baghdad in the past two months. The first attack, on Aug. 19, killed 22 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, a highly respected and very well-liked official who was close to Annan and who led the UN mission in Iraq.

"We are not here to serve as a fig leaf for aggression," said one of the guests who attended last week's lunch at the UN "The U.S. does not want to share power in Iraq. It does not want to share authority. All it wants to share are the casualties and the costs.

That is a very brutal, one-sided game, and we should not be playing it."

The UN would be more willing to help, officials said, if the United States were willing to more quickly, and sincerely, relinquish authority to an interim Iraqi government. Then, said one official, "we would be responding to a request for help from a government of Iraq, not an occupying power."

Another official said that if the United States insisted on running Iraq itself while having the UN serve only an "ancillary" function, "we are quite prepared to confine ourselves to a humanitarian role and wish you the best of luck."

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush is leading a public relations initiative aimed at reigniting support for the war and convincing

Americans that the situation on the ground is not as bad as it may seem. "Americans must not forget the lessons of Sept. 11," said Bush, in a reprise of his administration's compulsion to somehow link Iraq to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "A stable and democratic and hopeful Iraq will no longer be a breeding ground for terror, tyranny and aggression."

The timing of the president's comments was unfortunate. Even as he was speaking, reports were coming in about a series of tragic occurrences. A pair of suicide bombers killed eight Iraqis and themselves in an attack at a police station in Baghdad. An American soldier was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his convoy in an area northeast of Baghdad. And an intelligence agent assigned to the Spanish Embassy in Baghdad was chased from his home wearing just his undershorts before being shot to death in cold blood in the streets.

Despite the carnage, the American administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, did his best for the public relations initiative. He is optimistic, he said. Things are going better than anyone could have predicted, he said.

Selling a misguided war is a lot like selling cigarettes. You can never tell the tragic truth about your product.