Laying claim to "an important role" for the United Nations in postwar Iraq, Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday stressed that only the world body can bring legitimacy to the work of rebuilding the nation.

Annan chose the day that President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair opened talks in Northern Ireland on postwar Iraq to introduce the Security Council to Rafeeuddin Ahmed, his new special adviser on post-conflict issues.

The Bush administration says the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Iraq take the lead in running and rebuilding Iraq while the European Union and Washington's closest ally, Britain, are pushing for greater U.N. involvement.

Those divisions remained after Annan's 90-minute meeting with ambassadors from the 15 nations on the council, though they agreed that any new U.N. role in Iraq would require a new Security Council resolution.

"I'm sure there's going to be a role for the United Nations and that's going to have to be further discussed and further defined," U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said. "We have said that people shouldn't be surprised if the coalition is going to take the lead in Iraq, given the fact that it's the coalition that has basically sacrificed its blood and treasure to achieve the outcome that now seems to be inevitable."

France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, reiterated that his country thinks the United Nations should have a major role. He said France hopes the Security Council can unite on a central role for the United Nations after the war.

Diplomats said Russia made clear that any post-conflict involvement in Iraq by the United Nations must not legitimize the war.

The Bush administration attacked Iraq without the council's authorization following strong opposition from France, Russia, Germany and China, which believed that Iraq could be disarmed peacefully. The same division is emerging over plans for Iraq's reconstruction.

Pakistan's U.N. Ambassador Munir Akram said he believes Ahmed, a fellow Pakistani and former U.N. assistant secretary-general, will talk to council members to "find out if there is a convergent approach we can come out with in the Security Council on the future role of the U.N."

Akram said the ambassadors at the meeting discussed "principles," including the need to ensure Iraq's sovereignty, territorial integrity, control over its natural resources and the right of its people to choose their government.

Annan will also consult with key council members, starting Wednesday when he heads to Britain, Germany, France and Russia

Diplomats and U.N. officials said what the United Nations does in Iraq will likely be determined during the Bush-Blair talks -- and they are waiting to see if Blair can persuade Bush of the need to give the world body a key role.

"I do expect the U.N. to play an important role," Annan told reporters before the council meeting. "Above all, the U.N. involvement does bring legitimacy which is necessary -- necessary for the country, for the region, and for the peoples of the world."

In countries that are emerging from conflict, he said, the United Nations has had "good experience" facilitating a new or interim administration, working with donors and U.N. agencies on reconstruction, and on promoting human rights and the rule of law.