The UN's challenge in Iraq

Posted in Broader Middle East , Iraq , UN , Asia | 08-Dec-03 | Source: The New York Times

The United Nations has had a terrible year in Iraq. First it was marginalized by the misconceived unilateralism of the Bush White House. Then it was all but driven out of the country by the deliberate terrorist targeting of relief agencies. Yet with Washington now eager to get out of the occupation business and move more quickly toward restoring Iraq's sovereignty, it may become easier to revitalize the UN's role. A meeting in New York on Monday, convened by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, and bringing together Iraq's neighbors and leading members of the Security Council, offered an opportunity to take an important first step.

It is in everybody's interest to get the United Nations back into Iraq as quickly as possible. It would help Washington, which wants other countries to share the burdens of peacekeeping and reconstruction and needs to stop being seen as an occupying power. It would benefit Iraqis, who will regain a credible sovereignty only under international auspices and who have suffered from the withdrawal of relief workers after the August bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad. And it would advance the goals of France, Germany and Russia, which want to end America's occupation administration at the earliest possible date.

Washington's current plans would leave that administration in control for at least another seven months. In mid-November, American administrators signed an agreement with the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council that set out, in general terms, a timetable for putting an interim constitution into effect by the end of February and then forming a new Iraqi government to take power in July. Elections and the drafting of a permanent constitution would not take place until 2005. That plan is already being reshaped to answer demands from a powerful Shiite cleric for elections before a new Iraqi government assumes power. Meanwhile, the Governing Council now wants to extend its life beyond June, despite an earlier agreement to disband.

The Security Council, which has long been divided over Iraqi sovereignty and the UN's political role, needs to make its own judgment on the new transition timetable. It must do more than simply ratify the decisions being made in Baghdad by American administrators or their Iraqi appointees. The Governing Council as presently constituted is not functional and not adequately representative of the Iraqi people.

The sooner it is superseded by a more legitimate and independent Iraqi government, the better. Creating such a government is best done under the auspices of the United Nations, not Washington. So is drawing up a new constitution that fairly and democratically balances the role of Iraq's Shiite majority and its Sunni and Kurdish minorities. No solution of this key issue is likely to endure unless it is accepted as legitimate by Iraq's neighbors. International legitimacy can come only from the United Nations.

Representatives of all six countries bordering Iraq - Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia - were scheduled to attend the meeting in New York, along with Egypt and 10 of the 15 members of the Security Council, including all five veto-wielding powers. If all goes well, they might play a broader advisory role guiding UN oversight of the transfer of sovereignty and the creation of new Iraqi political institutions. The real work of guiding Iraq's political transition will fall to the new top UN representative for Iraq, who will succeed the man killed in the August bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad, Sergio de Vieira de Mello. A permanent successor is not expected to be named until January, but an interim appointment should be made as soon as possible. Until security in Baghdad improves, the new representative could be based in a nearby country, like Cyprus, Lebanon or Jordan.

UN relief and development specialists also need to start returning to Iraq and are prepared to do so as soon as the Security Council is satisfied with the arrangements for transferring sovereignty. Given that these specialists cannot work out of fortified bunkers, there are serious safety risks. Yet many of these brave and dedicated people will likely agree to go back.

The sooner the United Nations returns to Iraq, the greater influence it will have over the political transformation. And the more internationally legitimate that transformation looks, the more manageable the security situation is eventually likely to become. The terrorists who bombed UN headquarters last August knew just what they wanted to achieve. They should not be allowed to succeed.