United Nations, 21 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Fiji has agreed to provide a force of 130 soldiers to protect top UN officials in Iraq at a time when planning for national elections is reaching a crucial stage.
UN spokeswoman Marie Okabe said yesterday that the government of Australia will equip the Fijians, who are expected to arrive next month.
"These contributions are critical to the UN's efforts to strengthen the security arrangements of its personnel in Iraq. This would make it possible for the United Nations to consider expanding its activities in Iraq, as circumstances permit," Okabe said.
"These contributions are critical to the UN's efforts to strengthen the security arrangements of its personnel in Iraq. This would make it possible for the United Nations to consider expanding its activities in Iraq, as circumstances permit."
But the contributions are still far short of what UN officials will need to carry out full-scale electoral assistance. The election is to choose a 275-member national assembly, which would select a new government and direct the creation of a new constitution.
The UN has limited its personnel in Iraq to 35 because of security concerns. It had initially planned at least 270 election advisers.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari called yes for a larger UN presence in Iraq, noting the UN sent a far larger group to help the tiny nation of East Timor to prepare for its polls.
UN spokeswoman Okabe said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is doing all he can to try to boost UN support for the Iraqi electoral process.
"The objective is to assist the Iraqis in their preparation for the elections. [Annan] is doing everything possible to mobilize all that he can to stabilize the situation there and, getting in, obviously there is constant planning done to help support the Iraqi election process," Okabe said.
The UN spokeswoman said there is no decision yet on a Georgian offer of troops to a separate brigade to protect UN staff, which had been sought by UN officials. U.S. and Georgian defense officials are still discussing the matter.
Okabe said UN and U.S. officials are discussing the use of U.S.-led multinational forces to provide perimeter security and armed escorts for UN personnel outside of Baghdad.
UN officials originally wanted security from a non-U.S. force when traveling outside of Baghdad to show a measure of independence from the coalition. But in the absence of troop commitments, the United Nations has asked for protection from the U.S.-led force.
In addition to the United Nations, three U.S.-funded groups are helping to train Iraqis in a range of electoral areas, such as developing political parties, recruiting candidates and conducting opinion research.
The Iraq program director for one of the groups, the International Republican Institute, says that, despite security problems, there is a high level of participation among Iraqis in training events.
But the official, John Anelli, tells RFE/RL that his group has been mostly confined to Baghdad, requiring it to train Iraqis to carry out further education programs.
"In a normal situation, in other countries where we do these kinds of programs, we're able to go out to small and secondary cities and to local communities and to work directly with the grass roots of political parties or civic organizations or other groups. In Iraq, we are having to work much more on a routine basis through intermediaries," Anelli said.
UN Secretary-General Annan said earlier this week that a drop in violence is essential for Iraq to be able to hold smooth elections.