- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Israel yesterday sharply criticized comments by U.N. negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi, underscoring sharp divisions in Washington over the ability of the outspoken Algerian diplomat to shape the political transition in Iraq.

Mr. Brahimi, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s point man in the Iraqi political reconstruction, stepped into a hornet’s nest over the weekend by describing Israeli policy toward Palestinians as “the big poison in the region” that would make his work in Baghdad even more arduous.

Mr. Brahimi also was critical of U.S. military action against Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah and warned against additional attacks.

“When you surround a city, you bomb the city, when people cannot go to hospital, what name do you have for that? If you have enemies there, this is exactly what they want you to do, to alienate more people so that more people support them rather than you,” Mr. Brahimi told ABC’s “This Week.”

His comments on Israel inflamed several in Washington, but U.S. diplomats at the United Nations played down the statement, insisting Mr. Brahimi remained the best man for the job of shepherding Iraq through the June 30 transfer from U.S. to Iraqi control and on to eventual elections.

“He voiced one comment, which is a comment that we’ve heard a million times up here at the U.N. and we don’t take it as a highly critical or unique comment,” said an American official at the United Nations who asked not to be identified.

“We think very highly of Mr. Brahimi. He’s done an incredible job of balancing multiple viewpoints on Afghanistan,” the official said, proving “that he knows how to work in nuances.”

Mr. Brahimi was the lead U.N. mediator in Afghanistan from 1997 to 1999 and again in 2001, when he helped pull together the post-Taliban interim government after U.S.-led military forces routed the Islamic backers of the terrorist al Qaeda network.

“He has truly earned the respect of the secretary of state and the president. So he has a little more political capital to use,” the official said.

But Mr. Brahimi’s weekend comments, which Israel slammed as “highly inappropriate” and heightened concerns “about the U.N.’s own impartiality and objectivity,” set off critics in Washington.

“I think he’s certainly not suitable for the job,” said Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation.

“He lacks the diplomatic skills necessary for someone handling a task of this magnitude and his comments last week condemning Israel were clear evidence of his inability to be handling the Iraq transition,” Mr. Gardiner said.

“He is someone who is deeply critical of American policy in Iraq I think that possibly Brahimi is headed for a major confrontation with the U.S.-led administration in Baghdad,” Mr. Gardiner said.

“His remarks with regard to Israel will only succeed in alienating him from many in Washington who are growing increasingly concerned about the U.N.’s growing political role in Iraq.”

Mr. Brahimi is set to present to the United Nations today his blueprint for a political transition in Iraq that will set up a new transitional government by June 30, at the invitation of both Washington and the Iraqi Governing Council.

Initially, the Bush administration showed little enthusiasm for a major U.N. role in postwar Iraq.

But events on the ground, including a deadly insurgency and popular protests against the leading U.S. role, have forced a change of position. President Bush has openly appealed to Mr. Brahimi and his U.N. team to help chart Iraq’s political future.

“At this point, we will agree to anything Brahimi comes up with,” an administration official told the Brussels-based International Crisis Group in a report on Iraq to be released today.

Mr. Brahimi, 70, has had a distinguished diplomatic career spanning 40 years, during which he has served as mediator in a number of the world’s hot spots.

In 1994, he led the U.N. mission to South Africa, which resulted in democratic elections won by Nelson Mandela.

From 1989 to 1991, Mr. Brahimi, as special envoy of the Arab League, mediated the end to the civil war that raged in Lebanon for 16 years.

He also has undertaken special U.N. missions to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Yemen, Liberia and Haiti.

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