Bebeto Matthews  /  AP file
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan shows Iraqi Prime Minister Dr. Ayad Allawi to his seat as they prepare to meet at the United Nations in New York Sept. 24.
By U.N. correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/5/2004 8:06:53 AM ET 2004-10-05T12:06:53

Despite President Bush’s insistence that the United Nations is already involved in the effort to ensure democratic elections in Iraq and Sen. John Kerry's assertion that the organization should get even more involved in the reconstruction process, the United Nations is taking its time.

With four months to go before the scheduled elections, U.N. officials are still pondering how they can support the process while protecting personnel on the ground. 

U.N. officials say Iraq -- which has never experienced a free election -- needs the kind of expertise that the United Nations demonstrated most recently by helping to organize the first post-independence election in 2001 in East Timor.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546 adopted in June requests that the United Nations assist and advise the Iraqi government in planning and holding the elections.

Although the Iraqi government is ultimately responsible for the elections, the international community hopes the United Nations can give legitimacy to the process.

U.S. officials, in particular, hope elections will reinforce Iraqi control of the country and provide an exit strategy for the United States and its allies.

But the United Nations knows all too well how dangerous a place Iraq is right now, and the organization is hesitant to send a large staff to the country.

Managing from afar
Currently a small team of U.N. election experts is operating in Iraq, with most of the support staff based in neighboring Jordan.

The staff has begun the process of creating a voter registry, printing millions of ballots and helping train thousands of Iraqi poll workers, but much work remains, officials said. 

International pressure is mounting on the United Nations to commit more resources and personnel to Iraq.

The European Union, for example, recently agreed to contribute 30 million euros for an expanded U.N. mission — only a quarter of what the United Nations would like, but a substantial sum nevertheless. 

Yet, the EU has decided not to send election monitors to the country, as it did for Indonesia’s recent national election. It would be “dangerous and foolhardy,” one EU representative said.

In the view of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the more personnel he sends into Iraq, the greater the chance that they will become targets of insurgents, terrorists and others.

Ever since a suicide bomber blew up the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, killing 22 staff members, including their director, Sergio Vieira de Mello, Annan has been reluctant to put his people in harm’s way in Iraq.

Prior to the bombing, the United Nations had 387 international staff members working in Iraq. That number has been reduced to 35.

For the past year, Annan has insisted that a substantial U.N. commitment is possible only with strong security guarantees, which so far have not been forthcoming, officials here said.

The Security Council resolution adopted in June authorized creation of a special military unit to provide overall protection for U.N. personnel in Iraq, but nothing has materialized. To date, U.N. member states have failed to contribute the needed troops for such a force, which would operate under the U.S.-led multinational force.

In addition, Annan also asked for a small separate U.N.-run security unit to be deployed in order to protect U.N. personnel at their base of operations in Baghdad. So far, no government has volunteered to provide troops.

Meanwhile, some U.N. insiders have been minimizing the importance of the U.N. role in Iraq, as just one small contribution to a much larger scenario that is scripted by the United States, Britain and increasingly by the interim Iraqi government.

The United Nations is just “a little voice whispering into the ear” of the Iraqi prime minister, is how one top U.N. official characterized it. “It’s not our show,” he noted.

Pushing for delay until country more secure
Meanwhile, Annan has authorized running most of the Iraq operation from Jordan, citing the model of Afghanistan, where the main U.N. effort, after the U.S. intervention, was initially based in Pakistan. 

World power

The United Nations’ reluctance has prompted some observers to suggest that the elections be rescheduled to a later date, when conditions might be more favorable.

Annan seems to favor this idea, based on his recent comments questioning whether the elections could produce a meaningful outcome, given the poor security situation in many parts of the country.

Delaying the elections has not been a popular option for the leaders with the greatest investment in the country.

President Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi have all stressed that the elections be held as scheduled, come what may. Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Hussein al-Sistani, also wants an early vote. 

With so many key players adamant about the January deadline, it seems that the will is there for elections to occur, barring unforeseen circumstances.

And if the United Nations decides not to become more engaged, it risks possibly becoming marginalized. Recent comments by Allawi and members of the U.S. government suggest a willingness to go forward even without the endorsement that at a strong U.N. presence would provide.

Time for U.N. ‘to move on’ and go back
Complicating the decision for the United Nations is a division of opinion within its own ranks. While Annan and many of his close associates have been cautious and even skeptical about the January elections, some have been more favorably disposed, including some of the U.N. personnel now in Baghdad.

Former Canadian diplomat David Malone, long associated with the United Nations, has even criticized some U.N. officials and staff for being overly concerned with security in Iraq.

He points out that all nongovernmental organizations in Iraq, not just the United Nations, face the daily threat of violence against their staff. It is time for the United Nations “to move on,” he has written. 

The U.N. security coordinator, Catherine Bertini, is currently keeping a lid of 35 international staff on the organization’s presence in Iraq, and it won’t be lifted until security improves.

According to a top U.N. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “If the U.N. close protection is in place, then maybe we can increase our presence to 50.”

The official added, “It is not thought likely that the security environment will improve enough to allow a significant number of U.N. staff to go to Iraq in time for elections.”

Linda Fasulo covers the United Nations for NBC News. She is the author of  “An Insider’s Guide to the U.N.,” recently published by Yale University Press.

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