UN's return to Iraq is stalled by friction

Posted in Iraq | 30-Dec-03 | Author: Warren Hoge| Source: New York Times

Ukrainian soldiers take shelter behind military vehicles after Iraqi demonstrators started throwing grenades towards them in the southern city of Kut.
UNITED NATIONS, New York It is the quick-fix remedy prescribed by many critics of the American-led effort in Iraq - send in the United Nations.

For Europeans, the UN presence would provide a global-law seal of approval and a counterweight to American influence. For the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Coalition, it would introduce a notion of outside acceptance.

Public opinion surveys of Americans showing 60 percent approving of President George W. Bush's conduct of the Iraq operation also show nearly 70 percent of those polled calling for greater UN activity there.

Even the UN-wary Bush administration has joined in the calls for the world body to get more involved right away.

Yet with these urgent summonses coming into its New York headquarters from all sides, the United Nations itself is resisting.

It is doing so despite being a champion of joint international endeavors, an experienced hand at helping restore postconflict societies and an institution hounded by detractors' charges that its performance in Iraq is proving its irrelevance. The issue for Kofi Annan, the secretary general, is what the United Nations' precise role would be and whether its people would be safe in the country.

He pulled out all non-Iraqi staff members in October after a surge of attacks on relief workers and diplomats and the bombing in August of the organization's Baghdad mission, in which 22 people, including the mission chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello, were killed.

In a chilling comment to a meeting of foreign ministers in Geneva weeks later, Annan underlined how gravely he viewed the responsibility of having clear orders for his people. "Bad resolutions kill people," he said.

He is now committed to running the Iraq mission from offices in Cyprus and Jordan and only beginning to relocate staff members to Baghdad next summer when the transfer to Iraqi authorities is to begin.

But he is facing pressure to move back into the country sooner than that, and as in many other instances this past year concerning Iraq, the debate has cast the United Nations and the United States in opposition to one another.

Annan's suspicions of the United States are palpable. In a year-end news conference, he betrayed his irritation at the absence of any mention of the United Nations in the Bush administration's November agreement on the political timetable in Iraq.

"There have been some questions about whether this was an omission or a message," he said.

Annan says he will not send his people back to Baghdad until their function is more clearly spelled out. American diplomats counter that Security Council resolutions to which they agreed this fall provide that clarity.

There is impatience in the US mission over Annan's demands. "It drives us wild when they say they need more clarity," an American official said. "We gave away a lot in those resolutions to meet their needs."

A State Department official who took part in the negotiations said, "We look at it and say, 'OK, we're moving quickly to transition, we're doing what the UN and international community wanted, the UN has a vital role to play,' and the sooner it is on the ground, the better." Feelings run high over the matter on the UN side, where the shock of the Aug. 19 Baghdad blast is still fresh.

"The United States seems to think the UN is like the Foreign Legion, but we are really more like the State Department," said an official close to Annan. "If State Department employees get bombed, you pull them out."