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Why does anyone think the UN wants to rebuild and run Iraq?

The Independent, March 27, 2003

Tony Blair wants the UN to play a central role in post-war Iraq. Fair enough, but the question is, what role exactly?

Reports of the death of the United Nations are much exaggerated. Once again there is a fever of activity at UN headquarters in New York. Straight from Washington, Tony Blair is seeing Kofi Annan today to try to ensure that the UN plays a central role in post-war Iraq. Two days ago it was Condoleezza Rice up there.

Yesterday the Security Council held its first open debate on Iraq since hostilities broke out, trying to reach a consensus on providing humanitarian assistance to the country since the suspension of the UN oil-for-food programme, which allows Baghdad to use part of its petroleum sales to buy relief supplies. Some 60 per cent of the Iraqi people are dependent on it.

As so often, the "United Nations" means different things to different people. The cockpit for the recent rows over Iraq was the Security Council. But the American and British battles were not with the UN itself, but with other member states. That point needs to be emphasised.

In my view the United States and Britain were completely correct to demand that the council attempt to enforce resolution 1441, which it passed unanimously last November and which gave Saddam Hussein a "final opportunity" to disarm fully and immediately. The threat by France to veto any follow-up resolution was a disaster for the council and greatly diminished the chances (admittedly always slim) that President Saddam might bow to the will of the UN. At the same time, the worldwide popular demands for another council resolution to validate any military intervention in Iraq were extraordinary. They show that despite the blatant horse-trading for council votes that we saw on this occasion, the UN retains unique authority in the minds of millions of people around the world.
The question now is whether and how far the organisation can heal the transatlantic and Security Council rifts that developed before the war began. Or will the United States think that the physician needs to heal itself before it tries to practise on anyone else? There are real problems for the UN. Saddam Hussein is still a recognised head of state, and large numbers of the member states (perhaps the majority) think that the American and British intervention is illegitimate. So the secretariat below Kofi Annan has to be very careful about talking of its future role.

Tony Blair wants the UN to play a central role in post-war Iraq. Fair enough, but the question is, what role exactly? A protracted US occupation and administration of Iraq would not be in anyone's long-term interests (least of all America's). Perhaps we should be thinking of the sort of UN administration that ran Kosovo after Nato liberated it from the Serbs. Such a UN administration might help Mr Blair repair his ties with both his own party and with the European Union. But with Washington? One has to accept that everything that has happened in recent months will strengthen the hand of those in Washington who believe the UN is a disaster area - not just for America.

Some senior American officials will want to see the UN's future role in Iraq limited to humanitarian assistance. They ask: why should the US put France and other critics of America in positions of power in a country liberated by the blood of American and British soldiers?
And what about France? Will Jacques Chirac be keen to see a UN administration take over, as in Kosovo, which was liberated by Nato without a Security Council resolution? The French have insisted that they will not vote for any resolution that legitimises US and British action in Iraq. It is not just Washington that will resist immediate moves to a UN administration.

Then there is a real question as to whether the UN could and would immediately take over the government of Iraq. Everyone blithely talks as if the UN is just gasping to do it. But Mr Annan is much wiser than that. He will not want to undertake any ambitious new mandate in Iraq unlethe council is completely united.

Moreover, his lieutenants who have been involved in UN administrations from Kosovo to Kabul will be warning him of the enormous difficulties. It takes months and months for the UN to recruit the right people. What will happen in the meantime? Could the UN clean up the civil administration, leaving the good civil servants in office and removing the hardcore Baathists? Doubtful. Could UN civilian policemen reform the police? With great difficulty.

The UN Transition Authority in Cambodia (Untac) is sometimes cited as a good example of UN administration. It did have successes - but among its failures was that it was completely unable to combat the communist secret police system that still, in effect, runs the country. When you look at the mechanics of running post-Saddam Iraq, it seems clear that at least the first phase will have to be in the hands of the US-led coalition. Mr Annan has had long experience of the world shoving impossible tasks on to the UN, with far too few resources. The UN's experiences in Rwanda, Srebrenica and elsewhere were agonising. Mr Annan knows that painful history well; he has the courage to know when to say no to member states. But Mr Blair is right that the UN will be needed to provide a degree of international legitimacy to any new regime. Afghanistan was easier because the Taliban was never recognised by the UN and the UN already had a mandate to bring about peace.
One possibility is that in the immediate weeks after liberation, a new mandate could be given to the UN to create a political procesimilar to the Afghan process, which is run in Bonn by Mr Annan's representative, Lakhdar Brahimi. He collected all the main political players and helped them to select a transitional government. They chose Hamid Karzai to run it. Today the UN's assistance commission in Afghanistan does not run the country but helps those Afghans who do.

Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, does have an enormous number of well-qualified people. There are four million in exile - many of them will be able to play important roles alongside the best who have survived Saddam Hussein.Mr Annan said recently: "Let us hope the future will be much brighter for the Iraqi people than the recent past, and that they will soon have the chance to rebuild their country in peace and freedom, under the rule of law." That must happen - but it is far from clear that the UN should or could be solely in charge of the process.

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