April 18, 2004

Recast in Key Iraq Role, U.N. Envoys Are Wary


New York Times

UNITED NATIONS, April 17 — The United Nations, once snubbed and excluded from the task of shaping Iraq's future, suddenly finds itself pressed to play the major role in that effort, but it is taking up the task with some foreboding.

"There is a mixture of vindication on the one hand and great apprehension on the other," said Edward Mortimer, a senior aide to Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Mr. Mortimer contrasted the recent calls for assistance from President Bush with the disparagement he said the United Nations had become used to from the administration. "It's quite nice when you've been generally dissed about your irrelevancy and then suddenly have people coming on bended knee and saying, `We need you to come back,' " he said. "On the other hand, it's quite unnerving to feel you're being projected into a very violent and volatile situation where you might be regarded as an agent or faithful servant of a power that has incurred great hostility."

With time running out on the June 30 deadline for transfer of power, the United Nations is being looked to as the only institution that can confer immediate global legitimacy on the American goal of bringing representative government to Iraq.

But the challenges are formidable. United Nations officials are wary of being seen as a replacement occupying power in Iraq and will need to work with the United States while keeping an appropriate public distance from it.

They are conscious of lingering resentment in Iraq from the days when the United Nations oversaw economic sanctions that caused great hardship. They are fearful of taking on ill-defined responsibility and being blamed for any subsequent failure. And they face mounting criticism at home over the scandal-ridden United Nations oil-for-food program that investigators say enabled Saddam Hussein to pocket more than $10 billion.

In addition, Mr. Annan's aides say that he is resolved that any United Nations staff members who return to Baghdad have proper protection. He told members of the Security Council this week that he would delay sending people back in force until he had that assurance.

The last United Nations mission to Iraq pulled out in October, after the bombing of its headquarters on Aug. 19 that killed 22 people, including the mission chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

"We have an obligation since last summer to insist on clarity and on what is being asked of us," Mr. Mortimer said. "What are the risks? What kind of guarantees can you give us that we are not going to be blown up? And is the job important enough to justify the risk?"

Nancy Soderberg, vice president of the International Crisis Group and a former senior American diplomat at the United Nations, said: "In my time at the U.N., I have never seen such a strong determination to stand up to the pressure to go into a situation that's not right in their minds. They're digging in their heels to get something that is, in Kofi's words, realistic, feasible and advisable."

Mr. Annan indicated that the United Nations would do its post-transition consulting on elections and the creation of a permanent constitution for Iraq with small teams, and that the organization would not return in force to Iraq "for the foreseeable future." Aides say that probably means only after elections have been held in January 2005, the date that his envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said on Wednesday would produce a "genuinely representative government."

Mr. Brahimi is due back in New York at the end of the week to brief the Security Council on his recommendations for a caretaker government to be put in place by the June 30 transfer of sovereignty back to Iraq.

After 11 days of consultation in Iraq, he made preliminary proposals for an interim administration led by a prime minister, a president and two vice presidents to be chosen by him, a group of Iraqi judges and members of the Iraqi Governing Council and the United States-led occupying force. He also proposed the dissolution of the American-appointed council and a post-transition gathering of leaders to choose a consultative assembly to advise the interim government.

It is not yet clear how powerful Iraqis have received Mr. Brahimi's proposals. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite leader whose opposition effectively forced the United States to abandon its earlier proposals for the turnover of power, has remained silent about the matter.

Mr. Bush praised Mr. Brahimi in a White House news conference on Tuesday.

A Security Council ambassador from a country that had opposed the war a year ago emphasized that this year there would be no dissension. "It will be a mood of cooperation," he said. "If the Americans and the British come up with a way to really make the transfer of sovereignty a transfer of real responsibility, things will be quite positive."

The new Security Council resolution will outline the United Nations role in the post-transition phase, authorize a United States-led multinational force to help stabilize the country leading up to the elections, and define the relationship between the new Iraqi interim authorities, the United Nations and the United States-led military force.

The United States ambassador to the United Nations, John D. Negroponte, who is expected to become ambassador in Baghdad in July, said Friday that talk of what the resolution might say was in a very preliminary stage.

"We really haven't gotten into this, there's no specific draft on the table," he told reporters. "There's some thinking that's being done both in our government and in others, but I don't expect anything to surface in the very near future."

Mr. Negroponte appealed for nations to send troops for a force dedicated specifically to the protection of the United Nations, but there appeared to be no takers. President Jacques Chirac of France said in a news conference in Algiers that under the current circumstances the proposal was "totally out of the question."

The prospect of the return of the United Nations to Iraq as a powerful arbitrator of the country's future arouses mixed feelings among ordinary Iraqis. Perhaps more than any other people in the Arab world, the Iraqis came to know the United Nations at close quarters during the years when economic sanctions were applied against Saddam Hussein's government.

United Nations agencies became responsible for the oil-for-food program, which provided rations that sustained more than 70 percent of the population. Although the program was badly corrupted, many Iraqis remain grateful for what they regard as the impartial and humane behavior of United Nations officials throughout those years.

When the United Nations compound in Baghdad was bombed last August, there was widespread grief and even a sense of shame among Iraqis that the organization could be subjected to such violence.

But there is also a widespread feeling that the United Nations, lacking any powers other than persuasion, may not be resolute enough to withstand the sort of pressures it is likely to endure during a period of potential tumult in Iraqi politics.

When Mr. Brahimi spoke on Iraqi television this week outlining his proposals for reworking the American plan to carry Iraq to sovereignty this summer and to elections, some Iraqis watched with concern. "It sounds good," an Iraqi engineer said. "But how strong is Brahimi? How strong is the U.N.?"

John F. Burns contributed reporting from Baghdad, Iraq, for this article.