- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2004

NEW YORK — U.N. officials will look for ways during a highly anticipated meeting today to accommodate U.S. and Iraqi demands for a quick return to Iraq without being seen as a rubber stamp for American interests.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan meets this morning with senior officials from the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council, both of which seek U.N. help to legitimize plans for the turnover of sovereignty to Iraqis at the end of June.

Specifically, U.S. officials want Mr. Annan and his aides to help persuade an influential Shi’ite cleric to go along with coalition plans for a series of regional caucuses to select an interim Iraqi government.

Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani has alarmed coalition officials by insisting on direct elections before the June 30 power transfer, something the Americans fear could destabilize the country and upset reconstruction plans.

Senior U.N. officials agree with Washington that there is not time to organize elections before midsummer, but say they are worried about “tarnishing” the institution’s reputation for independence by prematurely endorsing the coalition position.

“The United Nations has a certain legitimacy; it’s not a rubber stamp,” a close adviser to Mr. Annan said last week. “We have the interests of the organization, which is a global organization. It’s not in everyone’s interests if the U.N. is seen as completely powerless, or in the pocket of any one state or party.”

Mr. Annan has long demanded as the price of a U.N. return to Iraq that it be given a clear-cut role independent of coalition authorities, as well as security guarantees for U.N. staffers.

Those security concerns were highlighted by a half-ton car bomb that killed at least 20 persons in Baghdad yesterday.

A similar blast in August killed 22 persons at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, stunning leaders of an organization that had not considered itself a target. After similar attacks on other humanitarian agencies, the United Nations and other groups all but withdrew from Iraq.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who will be participating in today’s meetings with Mr. Annan and later with the U.N. Security Council, has accused the organization of abandoning the Iraqi people.

But U.N. officials say they cannot send their staff back into harm’s way without sufficient security guarantees from the Coalition Provisional Authority. They also demand a meaty enough role to justify the exposure.

One diplomat said over the weekend that U.N. staff throughout the Islamic world could suffer if the organization was seen as getting too close to the United States.

The United Nations has a long history of operating humanitarian operations in dangerous environments, but direct attacks on foreign-aid workers in recent years have had a chilling effect.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees withdrew foreign staff from southern and eastern Afghanistan two months ago after a series of attacks on clearly marked UNHCR vehicles and offices in the tumultuous region.

A French woman was killed and several other foreigners were wounded in separate incidents.

International staff also were relocated briefly from the border between East Timor and West Timor after refugee workers were slaughtered by pro-Indonesian guerillas in 2001.

The United Nations was most harshly criticized for abandoning its efforts in Somalia and Rwanda in 1993 and 1994, said David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy.

But unlike in Iraq, Mr. Malone said, the United Nations was pressured to give up those missions by a reluctant Security Council.

There is little doubt the United Nations will return to Iraq sooner or later.

The United States and Britain, which initially after the war had insisted on limiting the world body to a humanitarian role, now seem eager to take advantage of the organization’s experience in nation-building.

They also hope the respect enjoyed by the United Nations in the eyes of Iraqis will help to legitimize their plans for rebuilding the country.

But many diplomats — even those who think the organization has a crucial role to play — doubt there will be a meaningful U.N. presence in Iraq before a transitional government takes over at the end of June.

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