- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

NEW YORK — U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced plans yesterday to begin re-establishing a U.N. presence in Iraq — but from a remote base in Cyprus.

The organization gave no indication of when it would return to Baghdad, citing continued instability in Iraq coupled with a hazy relationship between the United Nations and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

Mr. Annan pulled U.N. officials out of Iraq in the face of continuing violence, highlighted by the August suicide bombing of the U.N. headquarters compound in Baghdad that killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, Mr. Annan’s special envoy, and nearly two dozen others.

The new U.N. operation will begin early next year and will be headed temporarily by veteran humanitarian aid coordinator Ross Mountain, a New Zealand native with experience in complex emergencies in general and Iraq in particular.

In a 26-page report released yesterday, Mr. Annan said the United Nations could offer expertise in governance, humanitarian assistance, reconstruction and other areas — but only if the Iraqi and CPA authorities can agree on the U.N. role and on procedures to protect its personnel.

“The security environment is unlikely to improve in the short- to medium-term and could deteriorate further,” wrote Mr. Annan, challenging more optimistic assessments by U.S. diplomatic and military experts.

Mr. Annan said the United Nations would remain a “high-value, high-impact target for terrorist activity in Iraq for the foreseeable future.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declined to criticize the U.N. decision to stay out of Iraq for now.

Such decisions on personnel and security “have to be made by the U.N. authorities themselves,” Mr. Boucher said, “based on their own security circumstances, the kind of protection they can give themselves or that they can work out with others.”

Mr. Boucher made it clear that the Bush administration would welcome a U.N. return to the ground in Iraq.

“We have strongly encouraged the U.N. to become involved and be more involved” in Iraq’s reconstruction, he said.

He said U.S. officials still are studying the new report, but the spokesman praised the appointment of Mr. Mountain.

Under Mr. Annan’s plan, most of the 40 or so U.N. foreign staffers will be based in Nicosia until permanent security arrangements are made. They will include experts on political affairs, human rights, public information, humanitarian and development assistance, along with a staff of security experts.

The operations will expand as programs increase, especially after a permanent special representative is named.

Mr. Annan’s advisers carefully have deflected speculation over who will replace Mr. de Mello.

Sir Kieran Prendergast, the chief U.N. political adviser, said Mr. Annan had not decided on a permanent successor and indicated that the appointment might be a long time coming.

“The secretary-general believes that form follows function, and you have to know what the function is before you can appoint someone,” he said.

Mr. Mountain, currently the head of the Geneva office for coordination of humanitarian affairs, will likely leave for the region in early January.

Mr. Annan returns to the uncertainty over the U.N. role in Iraq repeatedly in his report, seeking “clarity” from the Iraqi Governing Council, the CPA, the Security Council and neighboring states.

David R. Sands contributed to this report in Washington.

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