Pressed by U.S., a Wary U.N. Now Plans Larger Iraq Role

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 7 -- The United Nations has offered to increase its presence in Baghdad for the first time in more than three years, after repeated appeals from the Bush administration for the world body to play a more active role in mediating Iraq's sectarian disputes.

B. Lynn Pascoe, the top political adviser to Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that the United Nations was prepared to boost its personnel in Iraq over the coming months. The organization is also seeking $130 million to build a heavily reinforced compound in Baghdad to house the growing U.N. mission.

The U.S. push for a broader U.N. role in Iraq underscores Washington's reliance on the United Nations to strengthen international support for the war. The move also reflects a commitment by Ban, who took over as U.N. chief in January, to overcome the institution's deep aversion to aiding the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Ban has vowed to do more than his predecessor, Kofi Annan, who opposed the U.S. invasion, but he faces a backlash from U.N. officials who fear inheriting the Iraqi mess and from Iraqi leaders who worry that U.N. peacekeeping efforts could diminish their power.

"There is an effort by the United States to try re-internationalize the Iraq venture," said Qubad Talabani, a Kurdish representative in Washington and the son of President Jalal Talabani of Iraq. "I think there would be widespread opposition to the U.N. freelancing in Iraq. Any involvement by the United Nations has to be in very close coordination with the Iraqi government."

The United States and Britain are pressing for a vote Thursday on a Security Council resolution calling on the United Nations to promote talks on national reconciliation and to marshal regional and international support for Iraq. The resolution also instructs the United Nations to help resolve territorial disputes, particularly in the northern Kurdish territory, where Iraqis are preparing for a referendum on the future of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

"What is driving the conflict now is largely disagreement among the different Iraqi groups on political, economic distribution of power and to prevent unhelpful regional interference," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

"The U.N. needs to play a bigger role that can help the Iraqis overcome these difficulties. . . . One of the advantages of the U.N. is that it can reach out to many groups and some groups that do not want to talk to other external players," he said, referring to the United States and Britain.

Pascoe told the Security Council on Tuesday that the U.N. staff in Baghdad could grow by nearly 50 percent, with the ceiling on workers in the capital rising from 65 to 95 by October.

Khalilzad also has pressed the United Nations to name a dynamic new special envoy to head the U.N. mission in Baghdad, replacing Ashraf Jehangir Qazi of Pakistan, who will step down in the coming months. Front-runners include Staffan de Mistura of Sweden, a former deputy U.N. envoy in Iraq; and Jean Arnault, a Frenchman who ran U.N. operations in Afghanistan, Guatemala and Georgia.

The Bush administration's overtures to the United Nations -- including two visits by Ban to the White House since January -- contrast with the disdain it held for the organization in past years. On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, President Bush predicted that the United Nations would meet the fate of the defunct League of Nations if it failed to confront Saddam Hussein. And the Pentagon sought to exclude the United Nations from any involvement in Iraq's reconstruction.

In the months following Hussein's fall, however, the Bush administration turned to the Security Council for endorsement of the U.S. occupation. U.N. officials in Iraq eventually helped stand up a transitional government, organize elections and negotiate a constitution.

But the institution has become a spectator as Iraq has slid deeper into chaos. The drawdown of British troops in the south has forced the United Nations to withdraw its staff from Basra, one of three U.N. headquarters in the country. Pascoe said that a spike in suicide bombings in Irbil -- where the United Nations has a small mission -- has made it difficult to expand its operations there. The U.N. mission in Baghdad has been largely restricted to the coalition-controlled Green Zone, limiting the United Nations' ability to reach out to Iraq's disparate political players.

U.N. officials have grown increasingly concerned about shielding its quarters from mortar and rocket attacks even in the protected area. In a reminder of the risks, a mortar shell exploded outside a room where Ban and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq addressed reporters in March.

Many U.N. staff members still harbor resentment against the United States over the 2003 suicide bombing that killed U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 other U.N. workers who were serving in Iraq, supporting a U.S. military mission the organization had opposed.

Some senior U.N. officials, including peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guéhenno of France and the human rights commissioner, Louise Arbour of Canada, have privately voiced concern about the United Nations being left with responsibility for Iraq, according to other U.N. officials. But even some officials who previously opposed a U.N. return to Iraq now argue that a U.N. mediation role could prove vital in breaking the political deadlock among the Iraqi factions.

"I think the worst thing of all would be for Washington to come to the U.N., ask the U.N. to do it, and the U.N. either to refuse to do it or to be unable to do it," said Kieran Prendergast, a former British diplomat who served as Annan's top political adviser. "I felt in my old job that the U.N. could have helped prevent some of the more egregious mistakes that were made, but you remember no one was listening to us."

Ban and Pascoe, a former U.S. diplomat, have been keen on carving out a more active role for the institution in Iraq. Pascoe has been seeking to head off a bureaucratic insurrection after the publication of an op-ed article by Khalilzad in the New York Times late last month outlining an expansive new role for the United Nations in Iraq.

At a recent meeting, Pascoe urged his top advisers to tell their staff members that the United Nations has no intention of inheriting the mission in Iraq and that the United Nations would simply expand the role it is already playing there. "The subject of cut-and-run, dump, all that stuff, it's not even out there," Pascoe said in an interview describing Ban's meetings with Bush and other administration officials.

"We were talking about areas where we might be able to be of some help. Clearly, the Americans were saying they'd like to have the help," Pascoe added. "We are, I think, seen as more neutral, maybe, in this process than others. We not only have the contacts, but we could talk to everybody." A meaningful role for the United Nations, however, will depend on "what the Iraqis writ large want to do, not only the government, but the other groups."

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