The decision by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday signals the first key political role for the UN in Iraq since the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad last summer that killed chief envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
The small team of experts is expected to spend a relatively short amount of time in the country and meet representatives of the main Iraqi ethnic and religious communities, especially Shi'a and Sunni Muslims and Kurds. The group will then return to New York for further consultations before a recommendation is made. That's likely to be some time later next month.
Influential Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has challenged the U.S. plan to conduct regional caucuses to choose a transitional assembly. He favors direct elections but has indicated he would withdraw his demand for them if a UN team finds there is insufficient time to organize polls.
U.S. officials say it would be impossible to organize legitimate elections in such a short time. A key political aide to Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi, also raised concern about premature elections. He told a luncheon in Washington yesterday that such elections could do more harm than good. Brahimi, who recently guided the initial Afghan transitional process, also indicated he would not assume a role of chief UN envoy to Iraq, as sought by the United States. But he said he would remain involved in UN decision-making on Iraq as one of Annan's chief aides.
A number of UN Security Council members expressed support for Annan's decision, but some raised doubts about the possibility of holding elections so soon.
The current president of the UN Security Council, Ambassador Heraldo Munoz of Chile, told reporters that preparation for elections is a time-consuming process. He said Chilean officials learned this in their own recent transition to democracy. "Conditions for a fully transparent and credible election take time," he said. "That is my experience. Whether that can be done in five to six months, that is a challenge for the [UN] mission to determine. My own experience in Chile is that that may require a long time."
David Malone is a former Canadian diplomat to the United Nations who now heads the International Peace Academy. He told RFE/RL he's also doubtful about the prospect of holding direct elections, saying there are too many key elements to organize. "Before free and fair elections, there are meant to be campaigns. It helps to have political parties. We have none of this on the ground in Iraq," he said. "I think the UN has to be very careful about putting itself in a position of becoming responsible for allowing elections that are, in fact, a travesty."
Malone says he does not expect there to be any major UN presence in Iraq prior to the handover of power. But he said UN officials should avoid taking on too much responsibility at the time of the transition. "What the UN has to be careful about is to not to commit itself to enter into Iraqi political space at a time when there could be a vacuum with the United States disengaging precipitously and prematurely in an election year," he said.
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, welcomed Annan's decision. He declined to speculate on the scope of a future UN role or on alternatives to direct elections in Iraq. "I think we just have to look at this on a step-by-step basis. But I think, clearly, the United Nations can play an important role in this unfolding political process in Iraq," Negroponte said.
The Bush administration has mentioned expanding participation in the caucuses to include more of Ayatollah al-Sistani's followers. Some news reports say the administration has also begun to consider holding partial elections or transferring power to a larger Iraqi Governing Council.