At a time of deep concern over instability in Iraq, a high-ranking UN official has sounded a note of encouragement about the country's advance toward self-rule. Lakhdar Brahimi, a top aide to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told a news conference in Baghdad that he is confident a caretaker government can be formed to assume interim power by 1 July. UN Security Council members, in particular the United States, are placing increasing hope in Brahimi's ability to shape consensus among Iraqis on their political future.
United Nations, 15 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Amid the worst violence in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, UN experts have been quietly moving ahead with talks on the country's political transition.
U.S. President George W. Bush this week highlighted their efforts, saying Washington is relying on UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to work out an interim governing plan before 30 June. Bush also cited the UN team led by Carina Perelli, which is advising Iraqis on election preparations for January.
The remarks underscored the emergence of the United Nations at the forefront of Iraq's political reform process. But there remain doubts among UN officials about how effective they can be.
UN Secretary-General Annan expressed concern on 13 April about security conditions in Iraq and ruled out any major return of UN personnel in the near term. Brahimi yesterday gave a more hopeful outlook but directed some sharp criticism at the U.S.-led coalition.
At a Baghdad news conference, the UN envoy expressed confidence that an Iraqi caretaker government can be formed in time for the handover of power from the coalition. Brahimi for the first time presented ideas about such a body.
"We see it as a government led by a prime minister and comprising Iraqi men and women known for their honesty, integrity and competence. There will also be a president to act as head of state and two vice presidents," Brahimi said.
Such a formation would likely mean the dissolution of the current U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. UN officials suggested it could be replaced by a "consultative assembly" to advise the interim government.
Brahimi sounded a note of caution, saying many of the plans must be endorsed by a wide spectrum of Iraqis and that the security situation must improve.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Richard Boucher, declined to comment on the proposal but welcomed Brahimi's comments about the feasibility of setting up an interim government.
Brahimi said a number of leading Iraqis he consulted with favor a large national conference to promote national reconciliation and consensus. He said such a gathering could be held after the handover in July and could elect the consultative assembly, which would serve with the caretaker government until the January elections.
Brahimi also said many Iraqis he met with were upset by the Coalition Provisional Authority's failure to review the de-Ba'athification process, which removed professionals from key positions. He said there also needs to be a quick resolution of the issue of the thousands of detainees.
"Detainees are held often without charge or trial. They should be either charged or released, and their families and lawyers must have access to them," Brahimi said. "The issue of the former military personnel also needs attention."
Brahimi is scheduled to return to UN headquarters by the end of this week and brief Secretary-General Annan and the UN Security Council. He would then return to Iraq for more consultations and finalize his proposals.
After the UN presents its plan, U.S. officials are expected to introduce a resolution that would recognize the interim government and specify the UN role. The resolution would also authorize a multinational force under U.S. command to provide security after 30 June.
The current president of the Security Council, German Ambassador Guenter Pleuger, told reporters that Brahimi is key to efforts to achieve a smooth transition of power.
“Of course, people are looking to Brahimi because he provides some hope that a solution how to get from here to the 30th of June can be found, and that is very crucial because everybody is interested to transfer sovereignty on the 30th of June to the Iraqis, but to whom? That's a big question, and Brahimi is trying to find out a way to come to that sort of Iraqi interim government,” Pleuger said.
Despite the challenges, Pleuger said, at this time there is no serious discussion about postponing the handover date.
"The Iraqis want it, the Americans and the British and the coalition want it, and it is also a prerequisite to get those countries involved in the stabilization of Iraq who, so far, have not seen a possibility to do so -- and that is, in particular, Islamic countries and Arab-speaking countries," Pleuger said.
Germany is providing humanitarian and training assistance to Iraqis. But a number of key states have signaled they are withholding support until the United States offers the United Nations a clear, independent role. They are seeking assurances that the sizable U.S.-led multinational force that will stay in Iraq will not retain the characteristics of an occupying presence.
U.S. officials have requested assistance from Pakistan to help provide protection for a UN mission in Iraq. Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan yesterday gave no sign whether his country would comply.
"The request is not for sending peacekeeping troops there but a dedicated contingent for the protection of the United Nations mission when it is established. The request has come from the United States government. We have received the request and we are considering the request," Khan said.
The UN ambassador from Algeria, the only Arab state on the Security Council, welcomed signals that Washington is relying on UN officials to help solve the political impasse. Ambassador Abdallah Baali told RFE/RL that it is crucial for Iraqis to perceive the interim government as legitimate.
"The UN can confer more legitimacy to this body, but what is important is the Iraqis themselves see it as a legitimate body which represents the Iraqi people. And that's why it's important that this process be inclusive, be transparent and allow all opinions to be taken into account," Baali said.
One of the complications for the UN teams in Iraq is their restricted movement because of security concerns. Brahimi's team had planned to visit a number of cities but so far has been able to meet with Iraqis only in Baghdad and Mosul.