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Iraq: Brahimi, Veteran UN Troubleshooter, To Play High-Stakes Role

The fate of Iraq's political transition rests in large part on the ability of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to design an interim government acceptable to the country's various factions. With fewer than 70 days remaining before they transfer power, U.S. officials have increasingly deferred to Brahimi's judgment. But his recent comments about U.S. military moves and Israeli policy in the Middle East have aroused criticism, just as he prepares to present his ideas to the UN Security Council.

United Nations, 27 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Lakhdar Brahimi mediated an end to the Lebanese civil war, helped oversee the transition of post-apartheid South Africa, and presided over Afghanistan's initial move to democracy.

But the 70-year-old UN envoy now faces perhaps his toughest challenge in trying to broker an interim political settlement for Iraq amid escalating violence in the country.

He has a powerful ally in the United States, with whom he worked closely while serving as UN envoy to both Afghanistan and Haiti. But Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, must also balance regional interests in seeking to establish a democratic state under a U.S.-led military occupation.

They label Brahimi as an Arab nationalist who is biased toward Sunni Muslims and thus incapable of acting as an honest broker with Iraq's majority Shi'a leaders.
Washington has handed Brahimi the task of drawing up the blueprint for Iraq's transitional authority, which is to assume power from the U.S.-led coalition on 1 July.

Top Bush administration officials reacted positively to Brahimi's initial proposal for a caretaker government. It calls for the disbanding of the current U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and replacing it with a government of limited powers supported by a consultative council until elections in January.

Brahimi was expected to provide a more detailed proposal to the UN Security Council today.

At the end of his most recent trip to Iraq, Brahimi called for a revision of the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA) de-Ba'athification policy. He said the policy had removed many qualified technocrats from Iraqi society. On 23 April, CPA chief L. Paul Bremer announced an easing of the ban, saying it had been unjustly implemented.

The decision seemed to signal Brahimi's mounting influence, says Mustapha Tlili, who is a senior fellow on Islamic relations at the New York-based World Policy Institute.

"Clearly, Bremer was expressing views that he did not express a few months ago, and I would assume it is under the influence of Lakhdar Brahimi because he is a man of experience and reason, and he was saying the obvious," Tlili said.

Brahimi last weekend also warned the United States against launching assaults on Al-Najaf or Al-Fallujah, where insurgents have gathered. He said there is no military solution in such situations.

Brahimi, who has also served as a top official of the Arab League, has generated more controversy in recent comments about Israel. In separate interviews on 21 and 24 April, Brahimi said Israeli policies in the Palestinian conflict are "poisoning" the Mideast region. He said his job of forming an Iraqi government is becoming complicated by Israeli policies and by U.S. support for them.

Israel's UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, sent a letter yesterday to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, objecting to Brahimi's comments. It said the envoy is making an unfair connection between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard last week distanced the UN from Brahimi's statements.

Annan said yesterday that it appears Brahimi is trying to reflect opinions from the Arab world.

Eckhard later told reporters: "[Brahimi] was criticizing Israeli policies and saying what he felt the impact of those policies was on the region and, in particular, on Iraq, which is, of course, his responsibility here at the United Nations now."

But Brahimi's unusually sharp comments leave the United Nations open to charges that it is continuing a perceived pattern of discrimination against Israel.

Hillel Neuer is director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based nongovernmental organization that is supportive of Israel. He told RFE/RL that Brahimi's comments raise concern about his fitness to broker the Iraqi political talks.

"It's a position of utmost importance for building democracy in the Middle East, and if the person in Brahimi's position believes that the greatest threat to Middle East peace is the sole democracy in the Middle East, then that suggests there is a problem with him being in this position," Neuer said.

The World Policy Institute's Tlili, who is also a former UN official, told RFE/RL that Brahimi's comments should not detract from his crucial role in Iraq.

He suggested the comments may have been primarily aimed at a Middle East audience.

"I think [Brahimi] made his statement to make sure that people understood his position -- yes, absolutely -- because he has also to establish his credibility in the region," Tlili said.

Brahimi's comments come at a time of increasing criticism from supporters of Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi is a member of the Iraqi Governing Council who has had major influence with the U.S. government. They label Brahimi as an Arab nationalist who is biased toward Sunni Muslims and thus incapable of acting as an honest broker with Iraq's majority Shi'a leaders.

But Tlili, who says he has known Brahimi for 15 years, describes him as a strongly independent figure. Tlili said Brahimi is motivated in his current role by a sense of obligation to end the suffering of the Iraqi people and bring stability to the region.

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