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Iraq/U.S.: Negroponte Choice Seen As Reinforcing Importance Of UN Role

UN Ambassador John Negroponte's appointment as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, one of the top U.S. diplomatic posts in the world, signals an appreciation of his skills, as well as an acknowledgment of the importance of UN relations. In less than three years as top envoy to the UN, Negroponte has navigated through numerous thickets, none more difficult than Iraq. He is expected to draw deeply on that experience as he helps guide Iraq's political transition.

United Nations, 21 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- John Negroponte has served in high-level U.S. diplomatic posts in Latin America, Asia, and Europe. But even before his latest assignment was announced this week, he was most commonly associated with Iraq.

Negroponte presided over a moment of diplomatic triumph when the UN Security Council voted its unanimous support for new inspections in Iraq in November 2002. He also was on hand five months later during one of the organization's low points, when Washington announced it was going to war without explicit endorsement from the Security Council.

UN diplomats and U.S. officials say Negroponte's ability to forge consensus on Iraqi matters after the ouster of Saddam Hussein and to manage complex relationships will suit him well as he heads the huge mission planned for Iraq.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a number of Security Council diplomats have praised Negroponte's professionalism. Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, yesterday said the secretary-general expects to interact closely with Negroponte in the months ahead. He said Annan “looks forward to working with the ambassador in his new capacity in Baghdad. They'll have a lot of work to do together, so he's very comfortable with that appointment by [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush.”

Germany's UN ambassador, Gunter Pleuger, the current Security Council president, also lauded Negroponte. He said Negroponte was among the first to greet him after his arrival in New York in 2002 with an invitation to dinner. Germany and the United States would soon clash over policy on Iraq, but their UN ambassadors have remained on good terms. Pleuger said of Negroponte, "He is a very able diplomat, and I had a very friendly relationship with him."

Negroponte, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will assume the ambassador post around the time sovereignty is returned to Iraqi authorities, scheduled for 1 July. He will preside over a U.S. mission projected to have as many as 3,000 civilian staff. He will also need to manage ties with a U.S. military commander independently commanding about 150,000 troops.

The current head of civilian affairs in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, has reported largely to the U.S. Defense Department, but Negroponte will report to the U.S. State Department.

In addition to running a large U.S. diplomatic mission in New York, which has about 150 staff, Negroponte played an influential role as ambassador to Honduras. He served there in the 1980s, when Washington was providing weapons and other support to Honduran-based rebels seeking to overthrow the leftist government in neighboring Nicaragua.

Negroponte will be accredited to the new government of Iraq, which has not yet been formed, but in reality will serve as a leading adviser. By way of comparison, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has become a powerful adviser to Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.

William Luers is a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia and a friend of Negroponte's. He told RFE/RL he expects Negroponte to have a low profile in Iraq, but to be quietly effective. "He's just very competent at managing complicated relationships, and I think that's one of the reasons that the president and the secretary of state have chosen him," he said. "He won't get his ego involved in it. He will do the job that has to be done."

Negroponte has worked closely with top UN aide Lakhdar Brahimi, who has assumed a crucial role in shaping Iraqi consensus for an interim government. The UN is expected to post a small crew of political and electoral experts in Iraq, but nothing more substantial until after Iraqi elections, scheduled to be held early next year.

Edward Luck is an expert on UN affairs and a professor at Columbia University in New York. He told RFE/RL that Negroponte's appointment reinforces the message that Washington wants the United Nations to assume a major role in Iraq. He said that Negroponte, though not an expert on Arab affairs, understands intimately the issues involved in transforming Iraq with international partners. "He knows where the different member states stand. He has a sense of what they are likely to do [and] how they are going to react. He'll keep that sort of multilateral perspective in mind, I'm sure. That could be very useful on the ground in Iraq," Luck said.

Meanwhile, UN envoy Brahimi is due to return to New York next week to brief the Security Council and Annan on his proposals for an Iraqi caretaker government. After an interim government plan is agreed, Washington will draft a new Security Council resolution to endorse the transfer of power and redefine the U.S. military presence in Iraq.