Fri, 22 Aug 2003

The future of America and the United Nations in Iraq

Jonathan Steele, Guardian News Service, London

"My time here could come to an abrupt end," Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN's special representative to Iraq, commented just three weeks ago as I sat on a sofa in the Baghdad office which on Tuesday became his tomb. He never seriously imagined he would be an assassin's target, and his reference to an "abrupt end" was delivered with a smile.

It was a standard line in the conversations he enjoyed having with journalists whom he knew and trusted, leaving it to us to decide what was on or off the record at the risk of jeopardizing his job. That trust was one element in the gamut of qualities, along with charm, brilliance, accessibility, dedication and compassion, that made him the "best public servant in the world", as one American admirer described him yesterday. For three decades de Mello had worked as a UN official at human rights trouble-spots in every continent, combining diplomatic flair and tough negotiating skills with barely concealed anger at the suffering he witnessed.

In Iraq, the point that dominated his thinking was that Iraqis had to recover their independence. The primary issue was not security, but sovereignty. Only if Iraqis began to feel the occupation of their country was coming to an speedy end would there be a reduction in the sense of humiliation which helped to sustain the resistance.

This was his gut instinct when he arrived in Iraq in June, and it was rapidly confirmed by the talks he had with political and religious leaders of every persuasion. No one else had such a comprehensive sense of Iraqi opinion, since the top Shia clerics saw U.S. and British officials as occupiers and refused to meet them. It prompted him to press the Americans to nominate an interim "governing council" of Iraqis to start the clock ticking towards elections next year and a U.S. withdrawal.

His shocking death makes it safe to report his regrets that the Americans did not understand Iraqi feelings properly -- though he probably told them himself in private. He saw the U.S. rocket attacks on the house where Saddam Hussein's sons were hiding as "overkill" because it would have been better to put them on trial. He initially described Paul Bremer, the U.S. head of the coalition provisional authority, as a "true neo-con who does not care about getting international legitimacy" for what the U.S. did. Later he felt Bremer had begun to change.

Whether Saddam was captured would make little difference to the number of attacks on the 150,000 American troops, de Mello argued. The perpetrators might be former Saddam security agents, militant Islamists or people seeking revenge for the deaths of relatives. But their activities would go on being condoned rather than condemned by most Iraqis as long as the occupation continued. "Security can only get worse. Iraqis' impatience and exasperation with such a massive foreign force is likely to increase and is psychologically understandable," de Mello told me in that last talk at the end of July.

Now, in the wake of his death, there is new talk of "internationalizing" the peace-keeping and reconstruction role in Iraq so that the Americans are not in sole charge. De Mello encouraged this discussion, though he was a realist who knew how hard it would be to make the U.S. share power.

He certainly did not want or expect to be offered the extraordinary authority he had in East Timor, where the UN security council gave him the powers of a colonial governor as he took the territory to independence last year. He had overall military control and was in charge of the Australian-led peace force.

Earlier, as UN special representative in Kosovo in 1999, he had political control while security was conducted autonomously by NATO. This division of labor is also a model which, at the moment, looks remote for Iraq. George Bush has invested so much in his war on Iraq that he will not readily contemplate any hint of retreat or ceding control to others.

Nevertheless, the task must be tried. Britain now has a unique opportunity to persuade the Americans to give the UN a larger political and peace-keeping role. By chance Britain holds the presidency of the security council next month at a time when many world leaders come to New York for the annual opening session of the general assembly. This creates a crucial moment of leverage.

In his dealings with Bremer in Baghdad, de Mello regularly praised the mediating role played by John Sawers, the UK envoy on the coalition authority. Here was a case where the "bridge" to America, which Tony Blair claims to want Britain to be, really worked in practice. Britain took up other people's ideas and persuaded Washington they were right.

The same pattern can be followed in the larger picture. As Tony Blair's office in Downing Street, London, continues to face domestic criticism for joining Bush's war without a second UN resolution, the government has a real chance to retrieve public trust by showing the independence from the U.S. which most people in Britain want.

Britain should accept that its position in Iraq as an occupier alongside the U.S. is undesirable and untenable. As security council president, it can promote wide-ranging consultations with France, Germany, India, Russia and other potential troop- contributing states on new ways to divide political and security responsibilities between the U.S. and the UN. Perhaps they could both be there, as they are in Afghanistan and were in Somalia, with a UN-mandated international force operating in one part of the field and the Americans in another. The model is far from ideal but at least it removes the U.S. monopoly.

Could the UN be given political primacy over Iraq's transition to independence? UN resolution 1483 already authorizes it to work with Iraqis in restoring representative government. This could be widened so that the UN rather than the coalition runs the entire process of rebuilding civil governance.

Careful diplomacy will be needed, but events are running in favor of reducing the American role in Iraq. Pressure on Bush to withdraw U.S. forces encompasses a quarter of the U.S. electorate, and it may grow if U.S. casualties continue and the Democratic party recovers its courage and dares to criticize the manifold mistakes of Bush's war on terrorism.

Britain has a powerful sanction. It can threaten to withdraw its own troops from Iraq unless Washington agrees to an enlarged UN role which ends the occupation, abolishes the "coalition authority", and gives international legitimacy to new security arrangements. Influence with Washington does not only come from quiet words in ears but from a willingness, when necessary, to leave the table and say no.