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How the UN may fit in postwar Iraq

By Scott BaldaufStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Seth SternStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2003


In the marble-floored Royal Palace No. 7, Lakhdar Brahimi looks as if he has the future of Afghanistan on his lean shoulders. In a way, he does.

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As the United Nations point man in Afghanistan, Mr. Brahimi is responsible for every single UN activity here - from emergency food relief and refugee repatriation to peacekeeping and reconstruction. That's just the easy stuff. Soon, the UN will help the Afghan government rewrite its constitution, hold national elections, and demobilize private armies that don't particularly want to demobilize.

By most accounts, the UN's efforts in Afghanistan are considered innovative, an outgrowth of lessons learned from recent UN missions - from Rwanda to Kosovo to East Timor. Here, the UN has honed its skills, taking a back-seat role and letting Afghans make all the big decisions, while UN officials offer the funding and technical expertise to act on those decisions. It's a method that, if given the chance, the UN says it could bring to Iraq when rebuilding there begins in earnest.

The Bush administration says the UN will play a "vital role" in Iraq; Arab leaders and the European Union say that the UN must be tapped for its nation-building experience; and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says that only by enlisting the UN can the rebuilding of Iraq be considered "legitimate."

But in each of the areas where outside assistance will be needed - humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, political reconstruction, creating a judicial system, and rebuilding the economy and infrastructure - the UN's role could range from taking the lead to standing on the sidelines.

Critics say the heady optimism that accompanied the UN's creation in 1947 has long since vanished. The international body, they argue, is too indecisive to respond quickly, too reluctant to use force, too bloated and bureaucratic to think creatively, and too overburdened with past conflicts to be handed any more.

But UN officials and supporters say the organization is the only neutral force left in the post-cold-war world, and that the UN needs to be allowed to do what it does best: providing a coordinated and neutral form of assistance to nations trying to get back on their feet.

Humanitarian Aid

Most observers, as well as the Bush administration, agree the UN will play a vital role in providing humanitarian aid. On Sunday, 50 UN World Food Program trucks filled with 1,400 tons of wheat flour arrived in Iraq from Jordan.

The UN has well established relationships with nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] which have proven most effective at distributing basic necessities.

Since 1999, the UN has been providing humanitarian relief for tens of thousands of refugees displaced by war in Kosovo. In addition to food and medicine, the UN provides mattresses, blankets, and basic cooking and housing materials. In Afghanistan, returning refugees are given repatriation packages of cash and household items.

While few Iraqis have been displaced by the war there, supply lines have been damaged, and in some areas, particularly the south, food and water have been in short supply. The US military and the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, headed by retired Gen. Jay Garner, have been charged with providing temporary aid.

With its existing Oil For Food program in Iraq, the UN is already on the ground providing 480,000 tons of food per month through some 45,000 distribution points. This program plays to the UN's strengths of appearing neutral and impartial.

Ross Mountain, director of UN relief operations in Iraq, says food distribution will be easier in Iraq than in other countries, partly because there are plenty of educated Iraqis able to run the programs themselves.