UN's role with Iraqis is emergingTeam can help break impasse, Annan says
WASHINGTON - Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations told President George W. Bush on Tuesday that he hoped the team of UN experts that would soon head to Iraq would help "break the impasse" on how best to establish a government. He also suggested that he saw the June 30 date set by the United States for a handover of sovereignty as only a general target.
Annan said after an Oval Office meeting with Bush that the UN team would "talk to as many Iraqis as possible and help them steer things in the right direction."
The team is expected to begin its work in Iraq this month, but Annan did not provide a specific date.
Bush said he and Annan had shared "a really constructive dialogue" on several matters but had spoken only briefly about Iraq, an issue that had sorely divided the United States and the United Nations. After the meeting, both men focused their comments on Iraq's future, not its recent past.
"I have always said that the United Nations needs to play a vital role" in Iraq, Bush said.
He did not touch on the rancorous disagreements last year over whether war was justified or, later, how broad a postwar role the organization should have. Nor did he speak of the newly improved U.S.-UN cooperation that aims to ease the transition in Iraq.
Just how broad a role the United Nations will play, in helping facilitate or actually managing the political transition, is unclear.
But the administration is looking to the world body to help explore, along with Iraqi leaders, a range of options for the transfer of sovereignty and the way a new government would be formed.
American, British and Iraqi officials had asked Annan on Jan. 19 to try to help break the deadlock. Four days later he sent a military adviser and security coordinator to assess the security situation in Iraq - the chief factor in the withdrawal in October of international UN staff from Iraq. And on Jan. 26, he agreed to send the team of experts.
"The UN does have a role to play," said Annan, who had met earlier with Secretary of State Colin Powell. He said the team he was sending would "go in to try and work with the Iraqis in finding the way forward."
"Everyone agrees that sovereignty should be handed over to Iraq as soon as possible," Annan said. "The date of 30 June has been suggested, but there's some disagreement as to the mechanism for establishing the provisional government."
U.S. plans to transfer power to a provisional Iraqi government by that date have encountered a serious obstacle: the insistence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most influential Shiite cleric, that direct elections be held first.
Shiite Muslims constitute 60 percent of the population, so the other dominant ethnic groups - Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds - are reluctant for now to accept direct elections, instead generally favoring the U.S.-backed approach of holding regional caucuses.
Annan said that the leaders of the U.S. occupation authority and the Iraqi Governing Council had assured him last month in New York "that they would accept the conclusions of the UN team."
In agreeing to do so, the Bush administration was shifting from an earlier approach that kept the UN out of planning for Iraq. The change reflected a clear easing, if not an ending, of the tensions over the invasion.
At the White House, Annan and Bush were also expected to discuss ways to end the 30-year-long division of Cyprus between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and to talk about plans for a donors' conference on Liberia scheduled for Friday in New York, a U.S. official said.