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Iraq: Annan Begins Cautious Revival Of UN Role

  • Robert McMahon

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has announced plans to revive the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq but has ruled out in the short term a return of international staff to the country. Annan cited a high-risk security situation and a lack of clarity from coalition powers about the extent of the UN's role in guiding Iraq's political transition. U.S. officials again stressed an eagerness for the UN to return experts to Iraq but gave no immediate signal that it would be given an enhanced political role.

United Nations, 11 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations will begin returning some international staff to bases closer to Iraq in the coming weeks but has no immediate plans to return full-time to the country.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a report yesterday saying there will be no return of international staff to Iraq in the near future unless there is a dramatic improvement in the security situation.

He cited a UN security assessment that says the risks to personnel in Iraq are "high to critical." He said it is impossible to forecast a full return of the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq.

Annan said the majority of the mission's initial staff -- about 40 people -- will be based in Nicosia, Cyprus. They will be led by veteran UN humanitarian expert Ross Mountain until a new permanent representative is named early next year.

In addition, about 900 Iraqi nationals working for the United Nations in a range of humanitarian roles are to be given more responsibility.

The 26-page report says that in the uncertain security environment, it is essential for the UN to have a clear understanding of its task. The UN's undersecretary-general for political affairs, Kieran Prendergast, told reporters that UN officials are not willing to risk staff for a mostly cosmetic role.

"For a substantive role or a vital role, I think the risk threshold would be a bit higher, but it still has to be -- whatever it is -- it still has to be an acceptable level of risk. And as [Secretary-General Kofi Annan] spells out in the report, security is going to be a very significant constraint in the months ahead," Prendergast said.

U.S. officials have repeatedly said they envision a "vital" UN role in Iraq but have spelled out mainly humanitarian duties, along with some reconstruction and political-advisory roles.

The UN's previous special representative to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was becoming an increasingly influential interlocutor until his death in a terrorist attack on the UN's Baghdad headquarters in August. UN international staff was gradually reduced, amid mounting attacks on international targets.

U.S. officials have urged the return of the UN to the country. Security Council members such as France, Germany, and Russia are calling for a leading UN political role.

Washington has said it is ready to discuss security provisions for UN staff. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday the aim is to have the UN functioning in Iraq. "Our goal is to work with the UN, to encourage the UN, to support the UN, and to welcome whatever role the secretary-general is able to -- and his representatives are able to -- play in Iraq in helping the Iraqi people with reconstruction," Boucher said.

The Security Council is scheduled to discuss Annan's report and the Iraqi political process at an open meeting on 16 December.

Prendergast said UN officials want to see more unity from the UN Security Council and the Iraqi Governing Council before considering a major role in the country. UN officials are also looking, he said, for a political process that includes more Iraqi factions.

"This is an important opportunity to broaden the political base of the Governing Council and of the provisional government that will emerge from that by bringing in elements which are not within the process right now. That is principally representatives of Arab Sunni nationalism and also a broader spectrum of Shi'a opinion," Prendergast said.

Annan's report offers the UN's extensive experience in organizing elections, writing a constitution, setting up human rights bodies and continuing humanitarian aid.

But some UN experts believe any major UN role in Iraq is doubtful until after the U.S.-led occupation ends and a transitional Iraqi government takes power. That transition is currently projected to take place at the end of June.

William Luers is president of the United Nations Association of the United States, an independent policy institute. He told RFE/RL that he does not foresee the UN assuming major responsibilities under current circumstances in Iraq. "Until there's a sovereign government, which [the UN] could support, I think it's highly unlikely that they will be a significant player inside the country," he said.

Annan's report also notes progress in Iraq under the administration of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). It cited areas such as human rights, freedom of speech, the provision of basic services, and reconstitution of the local police.

But Luers says the UN will have to play a prominent role in Iraq's political transition for sustainable reforms to take place and for the terrorist attacks to end. Otherwise, he said, too strong a role by the CPA risks tainting a new Iraqi government as an extension of the occupation.

"If the new Iraqi government is seen as legitimate, and if the UN is able to play its legitimizing role along with other countries, then there's a better chance of making that dream come true, that an Iraqi government will reduce or even eliminate the terrorist actions," Luers said.

Annan's report says another key element in Iraq's revival is to engage neighboring states, the Islamic world, and other key states in the process. He held his first meeting last week with representatives of an Iraqi "contact" group, composed primarily of key regional states, to discuss ways of moving forward.