How much can U.N. achieve in Iraq?

The UN secretary-general and Iraqi prime minister meet Saturday in New York.

The United States wants the United Nations playing a larger role in Iraq. And the UN – with a new mandate in hand that calls for bulking up its presence on the ground and tackling a wider range of political and social issues – seems willing to try.

But even as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon co-chairs a high-level meeting here Saturday with embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, experts are cautious about how much the UN can do. Even UN officials are saying that the kind of progress now crucial – moves toward political compromise and national reconciliation – largely depends on the Iraqis themselves.

"The last thing I'm going to do is pretend we have some magic formula to make this work," says Lynn Pascoe, the UN's undersecretary-general for political affairs. The UN has the expertise to help in Iraq if the conditions are right, he says, sending what might be seen as a premeeting signal: "We're going to work at it if we're invited."

Yet Mr. Pascoe warns against expectations of a fix-it-fast UN role, saying, "In terms of the relations between a Shiite majority government and the minority Sunni population, it's going to be a process taking a good long while. It's not like we're going to jump in and solve what the Americans couldn't get done in the last several years."

The US, which hasn't always been enthusiastic about a greater UN role in Iraq, has significantly rewritten its tune. That message was clear in President Bush's address on Iraq last week, and it is echoed by officials here. "We're asking the UN to step up and do quite a few different things focused in three areas," says Richard Grenell, spokesman for the US mission to the UN in New York. "A greater political role with the neighbors … an increase in numbers [of UN personnel in Iraq] from about 50 to about 90 … and to promote an internal dialogue among the political factions."

Saturday's meeting is focused on the International Compact With Iraq, a document signed at an international forum on Iraq in Egypt in May. The ICI calls for increased international involvement and financial assistance, largely by Iraq's neighbors, in exchange for Iraqi action on political and economic challenges. Those challenges include some of the same "benchmarks" the US has called on the Iraqi government to meet, such as how revenues from Iraq's oil wealth will be shared.

Indeed, on Saturday, eyes will be focused not just on Mr. Maliki, who is mistrusted by many of Iraq's Sunni neighbors, but on the entourage he brings with him to New York. Having just suffered an image beating as an ineffectual and sectarian leader in Washington's review of Iraq policy, Maliki will be watched for signs that he understands the need for national reconciliation – and that he has the support of other political factions to work toward it.

In addition to the compact with Iraq, the UN also has a new "mandate" for action in Iraq approved by the Security Council in August. The mandate, vigorously sought by the Bush administration, calls for the UN to increase its number of officials and specialists on the ground, and to expand its work program to new areas including the promotion of national dialogue and economic reforms.

Yet the big question hanging over plans for an expanded physical presence of the UN is security. After the UN compound in Baghdad was blown up by a truck bomb in August 2003, killing 22 people including mission director Sergio Vieira de Mello, the safety issue has some UN officials sounding very cautious about the expanded mandate.

"Who's going to provide the security for additional people we'd send in?" asks one UN official with close knowledge of the Security Council's action on Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's a dicey problem that could end up limiting how much more we can do."

The official notes, for example, that one level of security that the UN's small delegation has now on the ground is provided by Georgian troops. But Georgia has said it will reduce the 2,000 troops it has in Iraq to about 300 by next summer. "We don't see the number of multinational forces who can provide security for a larger UN presence increasing," says the official.

Even if the security issue is addressed, some experts say that what the UN really needs in Iraq is a "big name" who can raise the profile on the UN and the international community's commitment and get Iraqi leaders to focus on the compromises they have to make.

"The question is, can there be a political process to, in fact, actually start to make these trade-offs? That is where I have argued that the UN needs to be able to play this role – not a business-as-usual UN, but at a very senior, extraordinary level," says Carlos Pascual, director of foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington and until recently director of the State Department's Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization.

Mr. Pascual even has his preferred "shock" candidate for the job, France's new "tough guy" foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. Noting Mr. Kouchner's previous experience in Kosovo, as a founder of the nongovernmental group Médecins Sans Frontières, and as the intellectual author of a so-called international "right to intervene," Pascual says it will take such an individual if political progress is yet possible. "That is the kind of individual who might be able to get some traction on this, " he says.

Not everyone supports the "big name" idea, however, with the US saying it is not what the Iraqis say they need most. "If there needs to be a bigger name later on who can shake the funding tree, we can do that," says Mr. Grenell of the US mission. "What the Iraqis said they wanted was less of a big name, but someone who would work and live there … coordinating and interacting [with them] on a daily basis."

Still, the US is noticeably more comfortable with the UN's new "can do" approach to Iraq. It wasn't so long ago that former Secretary-General Kofi Annan described the US war in Iraq as "illegal."

Setting a new tone, Secretary-General Ban, who took office in January, "came in with the idea that whether you liked what had transpired [in Iraq] or not, whatever you thought of how things before the invasion or after were handled, we now have a large problem on our hands," says Pascoe, the undersecretary-general. "And so what can the United Nations do to help?"

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