The potential for a bigger UN role in Iraq

Eight months after it was chased out of Iraq by a massive car bomb at its headquarters in Baghdad, the United Nations is being held up by political players in the US - from President Bush to John Kerry - as at least part of the answer to getting Iraq on track.

After turning to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to negotiate a workable plan for the June 30 transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis, Mr. Bush again signaled his interest in getting the UN back on board in Iraq with his nomination this week of America's top diplomat at the UN, John Negroponte, to head America's mega-embassy in Baghdad.

Going even further, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Kerry calls for turning over control of international operations in Iraq to the UN - in part as a way of demonstrating that the US has returned to a "multilateralist" footing and is no longer Iraq's occupier.

But all of these proposals raise new questions - about the US ability to work with other international players on what is essentially its project; about how much the US is really prepared to cede to the UN; and perhaps most crucial, about how much the UN is able and willing to take on in Iraq.

"The UN cannot solve all of the problems, but it can help bridge the gap between Washington and Baghdad, and help come up with a slightly more legitimate government," says Nancy Soderberg, a former US ambassador to the UN and vice-president of the International Crisis Group in New York. "But while it can help, the UN can't fundamentally change the political crisis.... It's still going to be the job of the US to manage this thing through the [Iraqi] elections."

According to Edward Luck, a UN expert at Columbia University in New York, the US is not about to give up control of security in Iraq. "And the UN doesn't want to take that on anyway," he adds. On reconstruction or "nation-building," an area in which the UN has considerable expertise, the US is likely to retain control because it is largely paying for it, and because so much of the project is already under way.

"That leaves a political role, which [the UN] is already playing to a certain extent with Brahimi's presence," he says. "But it's still thin and uncertain, and I don't see that changing in any big way any time soon."

The UN's possible role

What everyone agrees the UN can do is help organize and administer elections. Bush acknowledged as much in his press conference last week. But the president also said he would seek a new UN resolution on Iraq, presumably to extend a mantle of international legitimacy over the Iraq operation and pave the way for both the UN and more members of the international community to take on greater roles.

Ambassador Negroponte's nomination fits in this scenario. By sending the top diplomat who negotiated with international partners on Iraq in the lead-up to the war, the administration is signaling it wants that bridge to the international community in Baghdad.

"This sends the signal that the US is taking this question of the role for the international community very seriously," says Jeswald Salacuse, an expert in international dispute settlement at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "Now the question is going to be, 'Is this window dressing?' That's what all the world is going to be asking."

Who'll be in charge?

Mr. Salacuse says UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan "is worried about whether the UN is just going to be giving the US the cover it needs" to continue in Iraq while seeking more international help. And UN officials in New York acknowledge such concerns, with one adding, "That's why we want more clarity about the relations of the coalition with the Iraqi governing authorities after June 30. Who's really going to be in charge?"

Coalition's uncertain future

In any case, no one sees a stampede of countries rushing to join the coalition in Iraq even under a new UN resolution. Some who supported the notion of internationalizing the Iraq effort earlier now say it may be too late, with few countries likely to join in what is seen as a crisis. That's the view Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan took during Armed Services Committee testimony Tuesday.

Already on Monday Honduras joined Spain in announcing it will pull its 370 troops out of Iraq as soon as possible.

The US appears to be left with a dilemma in which it wants greater UN participation in Iraq in part as a way of enhancing security, while the UN continues to balk at renewing a major mission in Iraq because of the poor security situation. Mr. Annan says he does not contemplate sending a large UN delegation to Iraq "for the foreseeable future."

A delicate, ongoing dance

In a sense, the US and the UN are continuing what Columbia's Mr. Luck calls a "distant duet" around each other that has been danced for years but which became all the more distant and mutually suspicious in the bitter negotiations before the Iraq war. The difference now, he says, is that the Bush administration, out of pragmatism and under electoral pressures, sees a need to get the UN involved in Iraq - right when the UN is most reluctant to rejoin the dance. "For months the administration treated the UN as irrelevant, and now all of a sudden it's turning to it as a miracle worker," says Luck. "It was never irrelevant, and it's never been a miracle worker, either. It's something in between that's always been difficult for this administration to work out."

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