The circumstances of the UN's return to Iraq underscore the difficulty in mounting a broad-based political process amid poor security conditions.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday confirmed that the mission, to be headed by new UN special representative Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, will arrive in time to assist with a key national conference in less than two weeks. But Annan told reporters that, for the foreseeable future, the mission will come under the protection of the U.S.-led multinational coalition instead of a special force called for in a UN Security Council resolution.
"We haven't had much success attracting governments to sign up for the dedicated force to protect the UN personnel in Iraq and our property so for the time being, for practical measures, we have no other choice but to rely on the multinational force," he said.
Pakistan, a top contributor to UN peacekeeping forces, had indicated it would consider sending troops dedicated to UN protection. Expectations rose further after Annan named Qazi, a Pakistani diplomat, to head the mission. But Pakistan has remained noncommittal. Earlier this week Pakistan's information minister said his government has no plans to send troops under current circumstances in Iraq.
The Security Council resolution on restoring Iraq's sovereignty, passed unanimously two months ago, called for a central UN role in guiding Iraq to a democratically elected government. It was anticipated that a sovereign Iraqi government would gain more support from the international community, including for a special UN force. But a surge in kidnappings of foreigners and terrorist bombings has hampered that effort.
Experts on UN affairs also see an unhealed rift between key Security Council members. Lee Feinstein is an expert on U.S. national security and diplomatic issues at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S.-based policy institute. He told RFE/RL that the inability to form a UN protection force at this crucial moment for Iraq should be considered a shared failure of U.S. diplomacy and of the Security Council.
That failure has its roots, he said, in the way the Bush administration went about waging war on Iraq. "What we're seeing is a lot of countries are waiting out the American elections before they make any decisions about what to do about Iraq," he said. "I think that is very unfortunate, and I think it is something that Americans and Europeans and others will come to regret."
The return of a UN mission to Iraq comes close to the one-year anniversary of last summer's bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad. That bombing killed 22 people, including top UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. The UN at the time was viewed as too closely linked to the United States. Since that bombing, insurgents have attacked numerous foreign entities seen as assisting the rehabilitation of Iraq.
Now, as it prepares to return, the UN again finds itself in a sensitive role in Iraq, according to Edward Luck, an expert on UN affairs who teaches at Columbia University in New York. "Typically, the UN does pretty well when there's broad member-state support and some kind of a consensus," he said. "When that doesn't exist, in most cases, the UN is fairly marginal. In this case, it is a particularly dangerous, particularly visible, position that it's in, so it has a fair amount to lose. It's really, in many ways, a no-win situation for the organization."
Iraqi leaders are counting on UN assistance to help organize elections in January for a provisional government. The national conference is supposed to pick members of an interim council to monitor the transitional government until elections.
The national conference was originally scheduled to start on 31 July but was postponed for two weeks. Annan told reporters that his office asked for the delay to try to make the conference "as inclusive as possible."
"We felt it was more important to have a well-organized and inclusive process, rather than organizing it on time, because you may organize it on time but get it all wrong. And we are continuing the efforts, working with them to expand the participation," Annan said.
The U.S. and British ambassadors to the UN, John Danforth and Emyr Jones Parry, asked to meet privately with Annan yesterday to discuss UN plans for deployment in Iraq, the security situation, and the national conference. Annan later discussed these issues at his monthly luncheon with the 15 Security Council ambassadors.