U.S. to ask for U.N. help in Iraq

Dispute over elections threatens to disrupt plans for transition by July 1

January 16, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Having refused to grant the United Nations a leading role in running post-war Iraq last year, the United States will appeal to Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday for help in rescuing American plans for a return to Iraqi self-rule by July 1.

L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, left Baghdad yesterday to join members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in asking the United Nations to take a key role in preparing for the formation of a new government and an end to American civilian rule.

He is expected to meet today with President Bush and other top officials at the White House to prepare for the session.

The Bush administration wants the United Nations to help the United States solve problems threatening to block Iraq's political transition, the most prominent being the demand by a Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, for nationwide elections to choose a governing assembly.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of the mostly Shiite southern city of Basra yesterday to support al-Sistani's demand for early elections, which would likely give the Shiites a dominant role in a future government and in the drafting of a constitution.

The American plan calls only for provincial caucuses, not elections. U.S. officials say there is insufficient time to prepare for elections and still meet the July 1 deadline.

An appeal to Annan would be a major shift for the administration, which during and after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year rebuffed demands by Europeans and congressional Democrats for the United Nations to be the central player in rebuilding the country and guiding its multi-ethnic population to self-rule.

Bush agreed to assign the United Nations what he called a "vital" role, but only after prodding by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Even so, two subsequent Security Council resolutions left somewhat vague what the United Nations would do, as the United States and Britain began ruling Iraq as an occupation authority.

The United States agreed in November to speed up the return to Iraqi self-rule, as American troops continued to face a stubborn guerrilla resistance and a number of Iraqi leaders stepped up their calls for an end to the occupation.

The deal, worked out with the Governing Council, called for Iraqis to regain their sovereignty by July 1. An agreement will have to be reached once sovereignty has been restored for U.S. and other military forces to remain to stabilize the country.

As part of the deal, the administration scrapped earlier plans calling for a constitution to be drafted and national elections to be held before the transfer of power.

The new plan called for a series of caucuses to be held around the country in May to elect representatives to a national assembly, which would choose a provisional government.

Al-Sistani's rejection of the caucuses in favor of elections has thrown a major wrench into the plans; he is a revered figure among the Shiite majority.

Senior U.S. officials say that if obstacles to an interim government can't be overcome, the July 1 deadline for returning sovereignty to Iraqis might have to slip. In an interview Saturday with U.S. News and World Report, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that "we have every hope of meeting 1 July, but I can't tell you that the flag will go up on 1 July."

Annan withdrew U.N. international staff from Iraq after a truck-bombing at its headquarters in Baghdad in August that killed 22 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the secretary-general's special envoy to Iraq.

Despite his weak mandate from the Security Council, Vieira de Mello had been making progress in working with both the Coalition Provisional Authority, headed by Bremer, and a variety of prominent Iraqis in developing plans for a political transition.

Haunted by the bombing, which revealed serious security lapses by U.N. officials, Annan has refused to allow international staff members to return to Iraq on a permanent basis, citing the still-dangerous security conditions in the country.

Instead, he has relied mostly on Iraqi employees to carry out U.N. work in the country.

Annan has said he expects to send international teams back into Iraq, once the U.S.-led occupation ends, to help Iraqis write a constitution and hold direct elections of a permanent government.

But for U.N. staffers to return now, officials say, Annan wants to be assured that their role will be clear.

"We're looking at a threefold issue: security, which is overriding; the scope of the mission; and the substance," a U.N. official said.

In recent meetings, American officials have sought to assure Annan that his teams will get the necessary protection. Some U.N. officials are concerned, however, that they will nevertheless be identified with the occupation and become targets for the insurgents.

U.N. officials also don't want to be put in the position of mediators in disputes between Iraqis and Americans.

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