- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

BAGHDAD — In Sergio Vieira de Mello, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a high-profile appointment to represent the United Nations in Iraq’s nascent political process, but many are wondering what role — if any — the chief U.N. human rights advocate will actually play here.

Mr. Vieira de Mello has been barely seen and rarely heard since he arrived in Baghdad two weeks ago, spending his days in private meetings with a variety of prominent Iraqis, and conveying their concerns in near-daily meetings with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), according to his staff.

But observers say the United Nations seems to have not yet found its place in the complex and long-range process of drafting an Iraqi constitution and crafting a broad-based, democratically elected government.

“The U.N. is not supposed to play a large role in the political process,” said one diplomat who has worked with the CPA. “The Americans don’t want them to be too involved.”

Indeed, CPA officials rarely mention the United Nations, except to say that its representatives were present at meetings.

And representatives of the various political parties have met with Mr. Vieira de Mello, but don’t seem to expect much from the organization when they talk about how to achieve their political aspirations.

“The United Nations is not the power here,” Hamid al-Bayati, a political adviser to the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said not long ago.

U.N. officials are desperate to downplay any talk of a rift between the United Nations and the United States on the political track here.

“There is no clash of interests and there should be no clash of interests. We are all here to serve the interests of the Iraqi people,” said Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for Mr. Vieira de Mello.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged, Iraq is less like Afghanistan and East Timor — the United Nations’ most recent attempts to guide a transitional administration — and more like the Palestinian territories.

“We are partners in this process, but we are not in charge of it,” Mr. Fawzi said.

U.N. officials in New York and observers who have passed through Baghdad suggest that Mr. Vieira de Mello, a suave Brazilian diplomat, has been ordered to keep a low profile and stick to the somewhat ambiguous script produced by the U.N. Security Council on May 22.

They note that the United Nations — which never endorsed the U.S.-led military action to topple Saddam Hussein — has a broad mandate for humanitarian assistance in Iraq, but almost no clearly delegated responsibilities outside that realm.

The resolution recognizes the CPA as the occupying power in Iraq, and authorizes Mr. Annan to send a special representative to Iraq.

Even members of Mr. Vieira de Mello’s inner circle appear to chafe at their limited role.

“Security Council Resolution 1483 uses [words] like to coordinate, to encourage, to assist, [which] Sergio Viera de Mello is not accustomed to,” Mr. Fawzi told reporters Sunday. “He is an operational man …. He is a man of experience and a man of action.”

A polished diplomat and bureaucrat, Mr. Vieira de Mello, 55, also worked in Cambodia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in addition to running the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights.

Fluent in English and French, the normally media-savvy Mr. Viera de Mello has been curiously silent since his arrival speech at Baghdad airport two weeks ago.

His office — which is still distributing copies of those remarks — has declined all interview requests, and he has refused to brief the Baghdad press corps.

Yesterday afternoon, the special representative was sipping tea with aid workers in the U.N. cafeteria, while Mr. Fawzi struggled to explain his boss’ silence to reporters.

“He has been quiet because he wants to listen and learn,” Mr. Fawzi said at his weekly press conference. “This is a learning period for him. We’ve been here two weeks, he’s getting very eager to define the U.N. agenda and he will do so in the days and weeks to come.”

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