- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

NEW YORK — The U.N. electoral assistance team arrived in Baghdad yesterday morning, as a firefight between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi insurgents left nine civilians dead.

In Brussels, the European Union issued a summit-level statement calling for a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing a “vital and growing role” for the international organization in Iraq.

“A strong U.N. role in this political process is an element for its success,” leaders of the EU’s 25 current and future member states said at the end of a two-day meeting.

“The European Council [of leaders] … looks forward to the U.N. playing a vital and growing role endorsed by the U.N. Security Council in the run-up to transition and beyond.”

A strong U.N. mandate could ease concerns of incoming Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who unexpectedly won the election with a promise to bring home some 1,300 Spanish troops from Iraq.

Mr. Zapatero, a Socialist, has indicated that he could consider leaving troops in place under U.N., rather than U.S., control.

U.S. diplomats have said they expect a council resolution may be necessary as the June 30 handover of power approaches.

Meanwhile, violence intensified in the so-called Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad. U.S. soldiers and Marines engaged in a shootout with insurgents in Fallujah yesterday, killing nine Iraqis. The dead included three children and an Iraqi television cameraman working for ABC News, witnesses said.

The Associated Press also reported that an Iraqi translator working with Time magazine’s Baghdad operation died yesterday from a gunshot wound he received on his way to an assignment early Wednesday.

Witnesses said U.S. troops had come under attack when they entered Fallujah’s Hay al-Askari neighborhood. They sealed off the area and conducted house-to-house searches. Soldiers carried out a similar operation in the Hay al-Shuhada district.

In the north of Iraq, workers were finally able late Thursday to bring under control a dormant oil well that had been sabotaged the night before. The blast on the Northern Oil Company well in the Khabaz area, about 55 miles west of Kirkuk, occurred Wednesday night, said an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps official in Kirkuk.

Meanwhile, the heavily protected U.N. technical team arrived yesterday in Baghdad. It is to travel the country and offer advice and assistance in preparing for elections.

A separate political mission headed by veteran U.N. diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is to leave for Iraq under heavy security next week.

The Algerian adviser is to meet with members of the Iraqi Governing Council and Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, among others, to seek the smoothest path to full Iraqi sovereignty and democracy.

U.N. officials have been partially sidetracked by widespread and insistent accusations of graft and kickbacks in the six-year-old oil-for-food program.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan this week outlined the initial terms of an independent U.N. investigation to determine whether oil-for-food contracts had been manipulated to generate more than $6 billion for Saddam Hussein’s regime.

A yet-unnamed panel would study the contracts and, presumably, interview diplomats and businessmen to determine the extent of the fraud.

One diplomat familiar with the Iraq situation acknowledged this week that the pain of sanctions and the clouds hanging over the oil-for-food program did not help the organization’s image at a time when it is trying to undertake delicate discussions.

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