U.N. envoy warns against attack on Fallujah

Brahimi says bloodletting would have lasting effects

April 28, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The United Nations' special envoy to Iraq delivered a blunt warning to the U.S. military yesterday not to launch a major attack to root out insurgents in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, saying that such a move would risk "a very bloody confrontation" with consequences that could be "dramatic and long-lasting."

Addressing the U.N. Security Council, Lakhdar Brahimi said there is little doubt that "many lives have been lost and much suffering has been endured by civilians" in Fallujah, the scene of a tense and frequently violent standoff between U.S. Marines and Iraqi insurgents for several weeks.

Brahimi said that U.S. occupation authorities in Iraq are "well aware that, unless this standoff - and now this fighting - is brought to a resolution through peaceful means, there is great risk of a very bloody confrontation. They know as well as, indeed better than everyone else, that the consequences of such bloodshed could be dramatic and long-lasting."

The warning is significant, because Brahimi is the man newly entrusted by the White House to assume the lead in preparing for a handoff of political power in Iraq on June 30 from the U.S.-led occupation authority to an interim government composed of Iraqis.

Hours before he spoke, the Bush administration gave him a renewed vote of confidence, with the newly designated U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, John D. Negroponte, telling a Senate committee that Brahimi is "the right person to carry out that job" of overseeing Iraq's political process.

At the time of the handover, the United Nations will take on a bigger role in Iraq than it has had since the U.S.-led invasion last year, with a permanent special envoy in Baghdad.

The Brahimi comments foreshadowed political difficulties ahead for the U.S. military in deciding how forcefully to confront Iraq's stubborn insurgency, which includes Sunni Muslims in the area west of Baghdad and Shiites in the center and south of the country.

Fallujah was the scene March 31 of the gruesome ambush and killing of four American contractors, whose bodies were burned, mutilated and hung from a bridge. Immediately afterward, U.S. officials vowed that the perpetrators would be found and punished.

Since then, the city, a hotbed of resistance, has been surrounded by a force largely composed of U.S. Marines. Over the past two weeks, Iraqi officials, tribal leaders and the U.S. military have sought to negotiate a truce, but U.S. officials say militants in Fallujah have failed to turn over weapons as required by the deal.

Holding off on a major assault, the Marines have announced plans to start joint patrols of Fallujah with Iraqi security forces. However, U.S. officials are still considering a decisive military operation to prevent Fallujah from becoming a persistent source of unrest.

Brahimi said his warning about Fallujah holds true as well "for the extremely precarious and complicated situation in Najaf and Karbala," two cities containing major shrines sacred to Shiite Muslims. U.S. forces have surrounded Najaf, where a firebrand Shiite cleric accused of complicity in murder, Muqtada al-Sadr, is holed up.

The U.N. envoy's briefing to the Security Council was expected to deal with his work in trying to devise an interim government for Iraq and help Iraqis prepare for elections to a national assembly in late December or January.

But before discussing the political arrangements, Brahimi told the council that the security situation in Iraq remains "extremely worrying," and that "an atmosphere of great tension and anxiety" persists.

"A key question is whether a credible political process is even viable under such circumstances," he said.

Brahimi's briefing helped to set the stage for negotiations in the Security Council over a new resolution intended to grant legitimacy to the handover of authority to Iraqis and to an international military force commanded by the United States to provide security until Iraq's military is able to do the job.

Negroponte, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday that even after the handover, Iraq's government would have no authority over U.S. military forces operating in the country. He said U.S. commanders should be able to operate as they see fit, but acknowledged that situations may arise in which Iraqi leaders oppose American military tactics.

"These are the kinds of questions that I think our diplomacy is going to have to deal with," Negroponte told the senators during his confirmation hearing.

Brahimi has cautioned before against tough U.S. military tactics in Fallujah, but his warning yesterday was sharper and carried more weight because it came in a briefing before the Security Council.

He drew criticism from the United States after complaining publicly last week about Israeli military tactics against the Palestinians and about U.S. support for Israel.

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