United Nations, 19 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has requested a meeting on 15 January with officials of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council. The purpose is to determine what political role the United Nations could play in Iraq.
In a news conference dominated by Iraq, Annan said he has not ruled out a return of UN international staff to Iraq before the planned handover of power to a provisional authority in June. But he said it is essential for there to be agreement on its function.
"What is important is for us to have clarity as to what it is we are trying to achieve, how we are going to achieve it, what system has been set up and how inclusive, transparent and fair that system is and then determine our role and what we do with regard to all the Iraqi parties, including [Shi'ite leader Grand] Ayatollah [Ali al-]Sistani," Annan said.
Annan supports the Iraqi Governing Council's transition plan calling for a series of regional caucuses leading to an interim government at the end of June. He said it appears impossible under current circumstances for the country to follow al-Sistani's proposal to hold elections in that time. The secretary-general also spoke of a visit to the Middle East region next year, including Iraq if conditions permitted it.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte told reporters he was unaware of a meeting next month involving the coalition, UN and Iraqi Governing Council. He said UN resolutions spell out a "vital" role for the UN in Iraq and that the coalition was eager for the return of UN experts. "I would emphasize that we would welcome the return of the United Nations and their international personnel to Iraq as soon as absolutely possible," he said.
Annan also spoke of difficulties in getting international support for peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan and Africa. Without an expanded international security presence in Afghanistan, he said, the country's political reform process may fail.
His special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said last week that the United Nations might need to pull its staff out of Afghanistan if security does not improve. Annan said Brahimi's concerns are legitimate. "He sounded a serious alarm that we need to deal with the security issue and if we do not deal with that we may lose Afghanistan," Annan said.
NATO leads the International Security Assistance Force stationed in Kabul and has approved an expanded mandate to the rest of the country. But no contributions to expanded forces have been made.
Special units called Provincial Reconstruction Teams have been deployed to several regions. But UN officials say they are insufficient to provide security for the country's election campaign set to accelerate next year.
Annan said competition for peacekeeping troops has become increasingly tough. He is concerned about getting contributions for peacekeeping operations for the Congo, Liberia, Sudan, and Burundi.
The secretary-general said the war on Iraq has diverted attention and resources from other crucial issues such as the struggle against HIV/AIDS ravaging sub-Saharan Africa. Annan said the disease has proven just as lethal as weapons of mass destruction, which rank high on the agenda of world powers. He urged greater focus on fighting the disease next year.
"Eight thousand are dying a day. What do we do? For those in those countries -- [South] Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia -- the AIDS epidemic is a real weapon of mass destruction," Annan said. "What is the world doing?"
Annan called for renewed determination next year in addressing other global problems such as poverty, hunger, and illiteracy.