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UN: Broader United Nations Role In Iraq A Looming Issue For Coalition

  • Robert McMahon

The United States has stepped up calls for greater international support as it confronts the mounting costs of its mission in Iraq. But a number of key states have linked their participation to a broader UN mandate to guide postwar Iraq to self-sufficiency. There are no immediate plans to expand UN authority, but Washington's renewed engagement with the UN, notably in Africa, is seen as a sign of improving relations, with implications for Iraq.

United Nations, 16 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the span of a few days, Germany, India, and France have ruled out sending peacekeepers to Iraq without a UN mandate.

They were among the key states sought out by the United States to share in the responsibility of stabilizing postwar Iraq. Their decisions come at a time of growing concern in the United States about maintaining troop levels and the mounting costs of security.

But at the same time, signs of thawing relations between Washington and the United Nations are raising expectations among some diplomats and UN experts of an expanded UN role in Iraq.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan traveled to Washington on 14 July for his first meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush since before the Iraq war. Their talks centered on Africa, a continent whose problems preoccupy the United Nations but where U.S. efforts in areas such as peacekeeping have been limited.

At a joint press conference on 14 July, Bush and Annan signaled a possible U.S. military commitment in Liberia. Bush said the U.S. is envisioning a small force to support West African peacekeepers until a UN mission is in place.

U.S. officials recently expressed support for expanding UN peacekeeping operations in war-ravaged Congo. Any U.S. commitment to help end Liberia's devastating conflict would be welcomed by Security Council members. A Security Council diplomat told RFE/RL this week that such moves could generate more cooperation for burden sharing in Iraq.

William Luers is president of the UN Association, an independent policy institute based in New York. He told RFE/RL the Bush administration's new interest in Africa can be seen as a sign of its re-engagement with the United Nations:

"A U.S. return to engaging in Liberia, to supporting action in the Congo, to look at ways in which the UN might help out to get more support for Iraq and the whole range of sort of issues with regard to Africa and HIV-AIDS, these are all part of a healing process which will be important for the UN to feel itself functional again," Luers said.

There may be further signs of healing today and tomorrow when German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer holds a series of meetings with senior U.S. officials in Washington.

Germany was one of the leading opponents on the Security Council to the war in Iraq. Fischer's talks this week are expected to touch on ways of bolstering cooperation on security issues.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said last week that Berlin will consider sending peacekeepers only if requested by an interim Iraqi government or the United Nations. French President Jacques Chirac made similar comments yesterday, saying a UN mandate is required before it will commit any soldiers. India, which had been considering sending 17,000 troops to Iraq, said Monday it could not deploy them without a UN mandate.

Pakistan and Bangladesh, two major contributors of peacekeeping forces to the UN, are still considering a U.S. request to assist in Iraq. A Pakistani diplomat told RFE/RL that no decision has been made yet but that his government would be more "comfortable" with a UN mandate.

A U.S. diplomat told RFE/RL he is not aware of discussions to broaden the UN mandate in Iraq. He said talks are ongoing with countries interested in contributing troops to aid coalition forces in Iraq.

On 14 July, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher underlined this point: "There are a substantial number of countries who have found that they can participate [in a stabilization force in Iraq] and wish to participate because of their own interest and because of the language in [UN Security Council] Resolution 1483 that encourages all countries to participate in stabilization."

Among those contributing is Poland, which will lend 2,300 soldiers to a brigade that will also include units from Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Lithuania. Ukraine is to send 1,640 troops to another brigade, and Spain will contribute about 1,100 troops to a third brigade including other units from Latin America.

But observers see the U.S. decision to keep its 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq as highlighting the need for troops from countries with well-trained and well-equipped forces.

Meanwhile, the UN special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, has in a short time demonstrated the usefulness of a UN facilitator in Iraq. Vieira de Mello, who consults regularly with Iraq's U.S. civil administrator, L. Paul Bremer, is reported to have played a key role in shaping the new transitional Governing Council, pushing for it to be given real powers.

The formation of representative Iraqi structures, as well as a strengthened UN role, are seen as crucial for attracting reconstruction aid from rich countries that had opposed the war. U.S. officials and key donor states have agreed to hold a conference in October aimed at raising funds for Iraq in the coming years.

William Nash, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it would make sense for the United States to propose broadening the UN's mandate in Iraq before that conference. "People's willingness to donate would increase exponentially with the role of the UN, so if you were trying to have a successful donor conference it would seem to me it would be to your advantage to have accelerated that whole effort prior to then," he said.

Nash, a retired U.S. Army general and expert on postconflict situations, says greater UN involvement in Iraq would bring political legitimacy for a number of states not inclined to contribute at the moment.

But even an expanded UN role would not automatically increase the ranks of peacekeepers in Iraq. German and French officials have noted their forces are already committed in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Africa.

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