U.N. envoy under fire in effort to rebuild Iraq

Brahimi being criticized by U.S. hawks and doves

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

WASHINGTON - As he labors on a mission crucial to President Bush's strategy on Iraq, United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is drawing fire not only from some American conservatives and former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi but from the Democratic presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry.

In remarks that stunned U.N. officials, Kerry adviser Richard C. Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the world body, criticized the president's decision to give primary authority for forming the future government of Iraq to Brahimi.

Holbrooke referred to Brahimi as "a Sunni Arab from Algeria" whose agenda is "not symmetrical at all with U.S. national interests." In a conference call to reporters before the Massachusetts senator's foreign policy speech yesterday, Holbrooke also questioned whether Bush was relying on Brahimi simply as "a way to get out of Iraq."

His comments followed weeks of criticism from neoconservatives skeptical of the United Nations, from supporters of Israel who have expressed alarm at Brahimi's outburst last month against the Jewish state, and from Chalabi, who refers derisively to Brahimi as an "Arab nationalist."

Forging a government

Holbrooke's criticism came as Brahimi, racing against a self-imposed deadline, struggles to put together a representative and respected interim government in Baghdad that will assume political power June 30.

Brahimi had planned to name a government headed by a president, prime minister and two vice presidents by the end of this month, giving the new leadership four weeks to prepare before the U.S.-controlled Coalition Provisional Authority dissolves and, with it, the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council.

That deadline is now slipping, U.N. officials acknowledge. Hussein Shahristani, a nuclear scientist once imprisoned by dictator Saddam Hussein, and the man named in news reports this week as the top choice for prime minister, declined the job. Brahimi has kept his choices for other top jobs close to his chest.

That Bush is placing heavy responsibility for Iraq's future on Brahimi may be a measure of the president's eagerness to avoid a quagmire. It is also a sign of the president's increasing pragmatism as mounting problems in Iraq chip away at public confidence in his stewardship. But it worries some of Bush's supporters.

"Why we ever agreed to let Brahimi in is inexplicable," Caspar W. Weinberger, defense secretary under President Ronald Reagan, wrote in Forbes magazine.

James A. Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the only explanation for the generally pro-U.N. Kerry campaign to criticize Brahimi was as a way of differentiating itself from Bush.

Brahimi's background hardly recommends him as an ally to the Pentagon hawks and Washington neoconservatives who were among the strongest proponents of using the invasion of Iraq to set the Middle East on a pro-Western, democratic course.

In a 2002 lecture in Sweden, Brahimi blamed U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990 after its invasion of Kuwait for "untold suffering" to Iraq and "killing its children in the hundreds of thousands." As for the United States, he said, "Too many people believe it is simply a powerful nation placing itself above the law, indeed outside the law."

A one-time student activist against French colonial rule in his native Algeria, Brahimi belongs to the same elite generation of Arab intellectuals as his late friend Edward Said, the Palestinian-born Columbia University professor who was a harsh critic of Western theories about the Middle East.

"He's an Arab nationalist and proud of it," says another friend, former Arab League envoy Clovis Maksoud, professor of international relations at American University. But he's also "a pragmatic realist," Maksoud says.

Brahimi served as a Southeast Asian representative for the National Liberation Front during Algeria's fierce guerrilla campaign against France in the late 1950s. He later became Algeria's ambassador to Egypt, Sudan, the Arab League and Great Britain, an adviser to the president of Algeria, undersecretary general of the Arab League and then Algerian foreign minister.

Along the way, Brahimi picked up formidable political skills and a reputation for personal bravery that admirers say will serve him well in Iraq. As a top trouble-shooter for the Arab League and later the United Nations, Brahimi has used his brand of discreet diplomacy to guide the rocky transition from conflict to peace in Lebanon, South Africa, Haiti, Congo and, most recently, Afghanistan.

"If anybody can do it [in Iraq], he can," said James Dobbins, a former high-ranking State Department official who worked closely with Brahimi in Afghanistan. "Temperamentally, he's just a first-class diplomat."

Aides say his technique in Iraq is to meet with a wide array of Iraqi leaders, interest groups and opinion-makers, listening to their comments and jotting them in a notebook. Then he comes up with a proposal and tries to build support.

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