- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

The visit of a U.N. delegation to Iraq will mark a new era in the postwar politics of the country. They arrive as a major new player on the political scene, but one that has turned up with tons of unwanted baggage — baggage that could potentially blow any possible smooth transition of sovereignty into unwanted directions.

While the U.N. team is to assess the security situation, to the average Iraqi in the street, it is simply, “The U.N. is returning.” And for the street, this means a return to U.N. waste, ineptitude,bureaucratic bungling and even corruption.

The only positive U.N. involvement was that of the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, who played a pivotal role in the formation of the Governing Council (GC) and mapping out the new political landscape in a turbulent postwar Iraq.

At first, the GC-CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) power-sharing arrangement seemed successful, or at least it had the potential for success. But the death of Mr. de Mello and the gradual increase of interference of Iran and the other neighbors in the political process through their Iraqi proxies led to a break down of communications between U.S. Administrator L. Paul Bremer and the GC.

Seeking a way out, the CPA and the GC signed the Nov. 15 agreement on the transfer of power to Iraqis by the end of June 2004. The agreement stipulates the organization of provincial caucuses to select a national transitional assembly.

This sparked fear among the Shia clergy (and their Iranian backers) that they might not be “selected” in the numbers they deem appropriate. Fears also were raised on the street that the new assembly would simply be an expansion of the current dysfunctional GC.

In the wake of these fears, two new players emerged: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who called for general elections; and the U.N., who he calledupontoassess whether the situation in the country is appropriate for holding elections.

The U.N. track record in Iraq is ruinous. The image of Kofi Annan shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1998 and crediting him with being the builder of modern Iraq is still fresh in the minds of many Iraqis, who were more likely to see his “modern” mass graves and torture chambers.

Furthermore, U.N. implementation of the massive oil-for-food program was disastrous. The mismanagement of funds by their pro-regime Arab staff is the stuff of legends. In the Kurdish north, where the Kurds had a 13 percent share of the oil revenue, there still is $4 billion unspent that no one seems to be able to account for. In Baghdad, one hears horror stories of U.N. contracts awarded to people who were acting as obvious fronts for companies owned by members of the former dictator’s family.

To some extent, the late Mr. de Mello salvaged the U.N. image in the country. “He was the best U.N. official who entered Iraq in 15 years,” says a former Iraqi employee of the UNDP. But his tenure was violently ended by the terrorist attack against the U.N. building.

The nature of a future role for the United Nations in Iraq is still uncertain. But with the United States now calling for it to play a major role in the handover of power this summer, it seems the United Nations will be returning. But this time it is different. They have at least one local supporter — Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Mr. Sistani has himself emerged as a major political power broker and has already proven he can disrupt any arrangement that does not take his demands into account. His advisers and those who reflect his views inside and outside the GC have hinted behind closed doors that a midway compromise might be reached. Increased clerical representation in any transitional arrangement might well moderate his demands for full elections.

As for the GC and the CPA, the stakes are high. The June 30 deadline looms. The U.S. administrationneedsa smooth transition for any assurance of a Bush re-election. The GC signed onto the Nov. 15 agreement, committing to a transfer of power.

Their 25 members are under pressure from the Iraqi street. They must reach a compromise with Mr. Sistani. Since Mr. Sistani will not talk to the Americans, the GC must also negotiate between Mr. Sistani and the Americans, and find a common ground.

The United States is the only player who can keep Iraq’s neighbors out of the whole process. And only by keeping them out can the United States hope for a peaceful transition.

With their bureaucratic inefficiency and notorious Iraqi past, the United Nations is not fit to play any part other than that of an observer. The stage is already crowded.

Hiwa Osman is an editor and journalism trainer with the Institute for War & Peace Reporting in Baghdad.

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