United Nations, 24 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and a team of election experts will be heading back to Iraq soon, undeterred by the latest signals of protest from the majority Shi'a community's most influential figure.
"The clock is ticking, and 30 June will soon be upon us."
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wrote a letter last week to Brahimi calling on the United Nations to take a "clear stand" that it will not endorse the interim constitution. It said the document has the potential to incite sectarian strife in the country.
The letter cast new doubt on whether the country's factions can agree on an interim plan for a transitional government in just three months. UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said Brahimi told him yesterday the letter does not require a response and that the envoy looks forward to meeting soon with all parties in Iraq.
"There will be no response to that letter, and I don't think Mr. Brahimi wants to enter into that debate on one side or the other of it. If he can help Iraqis work out their differences on the issue -- not just on the fundamental law, but the whole transition process -- he will be a happy man," Eckhard said.
Eckhard declined to give specifics about the upcoming trip other than to say it would be soon. UN officials have been reluctant to share advance information about visits to Iraq after an attack on UN facilities in Baghdad last year killed 23 people, including special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
U.S. officials have been eager for Brahimi to return to Iraq, to help shape consensus on an interim governing plan and smooth the transition to Iraqi sovereignty. While coalition officials cite progress in many areas, they have failed to suppress terrorist attacks, primarily in the so-called "Sunni Triangle" north and west of Baghdad.
Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, has vast experience in postconflict zones, including Lebanon, Haiti, and, most recently, Afghanistan.
The UN Security Council plans to issue a presidential statement today expressing support for Brahimi's mission.
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, said the statement will not include a reference to the interim constitution, signed earlier this month.
"We think Mr. Brahimi's work should continue. We think it's important that he undertake it, and we think it's important that he undertake it as soon as possible. And as far as [the] interaction with various Iraqi personalities and figures, I think we're just going to have to wait and see. The work's got to go forward. The clock is ticking, and 30 June will soon be upon us," Negroponte said.
UN officials will need to reconcile the wishes of Kurds who seek expanded autonomy in the north; the Shi'a majority, which wants its numerical dominance reflected in governance arrangements; and Sunnis worried about their loss of power after the ouster of Hussein.
Brahimi reported after his previous visit that it would take at least eight months to prepare proper elections in Iraq. The report did not recommend an interim plan but said options include greatly expanding the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council.
David Malone is an expert on UN affairs who heads the International Peace Academy, a New York-based policy institute. He says Brahimi is likely to spend much of his trip listening, rather than dictating solutions.
"I don't think the UN is going to put forward any hard and fast proposals as soon as he goes to Iraq. I think he's going to go and listen some more because that's the way he works. Brahimi has never been a man who believes [the] UN should be imposing [solutions]," Malone said.
Malone tells RFE/RL that he does not expect there to be major difficulties between Brahimi and al-Sistani, who can carry on productive talks through intermediaries. The bigger challenge, he says, is finding interlocutors who can legitimately represent the concerns of the Sunni community.
"The big problem is the Sunni community, where no leaders have emerged yet who can speak for the anxieties of the community and who can credibly forge compromises with the other communities, including in the name of those currently perpetrating violence," Malone said.
Security remains a chief concern in Iraq. Attacks by insurgents yesterday killed 11 Iraqi police officers and police trainees in separate attacks, one near Hilla, south of Baghdad, and the other near Kirkuk in the north.