Wednesday, January 14, 2004

NEW YORK — U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte welcomed signs that the United Nations may return to Iraq, but cautioned yesterday that a meeting of key players next week might not produce a decision on a new U.N. role in the country.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan invited officials from the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led coalition to a meeting Monday to try to pin down what they want the United Nations to do as Iraq moves beyond U.S. occupation.

The United States has been pressing for the return of U.N. international staff to support the coalition’s plan to transfer power to a provisional Iraqi government by July 1. Mr. Annan ordered all international staff to leave Iraq in late October after two bombings at U.N. headquarters and a spate of attacks on humanitarian targets.

Mr. Negroponte wouldn’t predict the outcome of Monday’s meeting or comment on U.S. expectations.

“I look at this meeting on Monday as a step forward toward the re-engagement of the United Nations in Iraq, and by having the dialogue at such a high level — that augurs well for the prospects of moving this issue forward,” he said.

Mr. Negroponte cautioned that “Monday is not necessarily in any way a decision-making meeting. But it will be, I think, an opportunity for a thorough review of the bidding by some of the principal actors involved.”

Mr. Annan has said repeatedly that security conditions in Iraq remain too dangerous for international staff to return. At the same time, he has not ruled out sending some staff back if they are given an important role.

Security Council members also want to talk to the Iraqis, and they decided yesterday to invite the Governing Council’s president, Adnan Pachachi, to a private meeting late Monday afternoon. Mr. Annan will be there as well.

Mr. Negroponte confirmed he received a letter from Undersecretary-General Kieran Prendergast saying the U.N. plans to send two military advisers and two security officers to Baghdad within two weeks to assess security conditions.

At a meeting with Mr. Prendergast on Tuesday, Mr. Negroponte said he had “responded affirmatively” to the U.N. request for assistance to facilitate its return.

The letter said the United Nations wants to upgrade security at its facilities in Baghdad and plans to resume flights to the city in coming weeks, key prerequisites for any large-scale return of U.N. staff, U.N. diplomats said on the condition of anonymity.

What the United Nations could do in Iraq, particularly before the handover of power, remains uncertain, especially in light of divisions among the Iraqis themselves.

A Nov. 15 agreement between the Iraqi Governing Council and the coalition calls for a provisional assembly chosen through caucuses in Iraq’s 18 provinces to select a sovereign government by July 1. But Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful cleric, wants direct elections to choose a transitional government.

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