U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is prepared to try to help the United States salvage its Iraq strategy, despite more than a year of rancorous relations over the country, largely due to his deep concern about the potential for a political implosion in Iraq, according to senior U.S. and U.N. officials.
But Annan, who is also wary of U.S. motives, intends to ask some tough and specific questions in talks with L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. governor of Iraq, and the Iraqi Governing Council at their meeting today in New York, U.N. officials say. The key is how much authority the United States is willing to cede on policy, a critical issue because the United Nations does not want to be used simply to give credibility to the troubled U.S. plan to hand over power to Iraq by June 30.
Annan has set three other conditions for the United Nations to return to Iraq: complete clarity on the scope of the U.N. role, security guarantees, and assurances that the substance of the U.N. role would justify the risks.
A suicide bombing yesterday, which killed 20 people and injured more than 60, only served to accentuate the danger in Iraq, U.N. officials said.
Although there is growing momentum and optimism about U.N. help in rescuing the U.S. plan, it may be an uphill battle for both sides to achieve an agreement. Internal debates continue within the United Nations and the United States on specifics.
Annan's top advisers differ over the wisdom of returning to Iraq under U.S. military occupation. "Some people think this is a trap," a U.N. official said. Others think "this is the perfect time for the U.N. to demonstrate to everybody that it has a role to play and can be useful," the official said. "They don't believe that the impasse is impossible to solve."
Senior U.N. officials are skeptical of Bremer's personal willingness to yield authority, noting complaints from U.N. officials in the field that Bremer had sidelined the United Nations' former envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, after he helped Bremer establish the Governing Council. De Mello was killed, along with 21 other people, in the August suicide bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.
Some critics on the U.N. Security Council also suggest that U.S. efforts to lure the United Nations back to Iraq are motivated by the need to share the risks in a presidential election year. "They need to find a scapegoat to take the blame in case this fails," an envoy from one of the 15 member countries said.
What is needed to repair those tensions, a U.N. official said, is for Bremer to look Annan "straight in the eye" and say "we will abide by whatever solution" emerges from U.N. mediation efforts in Iraq.
Vice President Cheney's office is particularly reluctant to cede too much control over Iraq to the United Nations, U.S. officials said. And if the United Nations is not fully satisfied, some of its officials warned, then the prospects of a joint effort could fail.
For now, the United States is looking for what one U.S. official described as "progressive increasing responsibility" for the United Nations, since the world body will need time to dispatch staff and set up operations again in Baghdad. The United Nations withdrew its staff in October after a second suicide bombing at its headquarters.
"We're between a rock and a hard place. . . . We want the U.N. in there, but the situation is moving so fast on the ground that we can't simply turn things over until the U.N. is on the ground, fully staffed and fully engaged," a senior U.S. official said.
Added a senior State Department official: "It should be a growing role that starts out with the U.N. getting involved and goes to wherever they can take it. Based on results, it can grow."
With the June 30 deadline looming and threats of protests against the U.S. plan growing, U.S. officials said there is a general understanding across the administration, including in Cheney's office, that changes have to be made in the U.S. transition plan -- and that there is no alternative but the United Nations to achieve both Iraqi and international legitimacy.
The political hand-over, which centers around a complex process based on caucuses in Iraq's 18 provinces to elect a new national assembly, has been challenged by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Iraq's leading religious cleric is demanding direct elections so the caucus process cannot be manipulated to favor U.S.-backed Iraqis.
Sistani has repeatedly called for the United Nations to weigh in on the election issue. Washington hopes the most immediate role U.N. envoys will play is mediating with Sistaniand other potential spoilers of the transition plan. Sistani has refused to see U.S. diplomats but has met with U.N. representatives.
'We need help'
"Look, the bottom line is we need help," a U.S. official intimately involved in Iraq policy said. "We need help on a lot of fronts, whether it's managing Sistani, whether it's making this process more truly transparent and inclusive in such a way that the Sistanis of this world buy into it. That is something we haven't had very much success [with]. There is a genuine recognition that we need to engage more broadly."
To the surprise of some U.S. officials, the United Nations has not been spiteful or vindictive about the U.S. request for help, with the main focus of talks on the future instead of on the awkward past. Some Security Council members say it is time to make peace on Iraq policy.
"I don't think it will serve anybody's purpose at this time to recall who was right or wrong," said Pakistan's U.N. ambassador, Munir Akram. "Our only priority objective is to stabilize Iraq. We should find the most effective way to do so."
A new spirit of cooperation has begun to emerge between the United States and the United Nations, according to officials of both. The United States initially responded coolly when Annan called for three-way talks in New York. Washington was only prepared to send low-level officials, and Bremer was not expected to attend.
But talks last Tuesday in New York went particularly well, with the focus on problem-solving, not just process, U.S. and U.N. officials said. The United Nations has put forward one idea to salvage the Nov. 15 agreement, making minor changes to the caucuses and repackaging them as "indirect elections," according to the senior U.S. official.
As a result, additional talks, attended by Robert D. Blackwill, the Iraqi troubleshooter on the National Security Council, and Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns , were held yesterday in New York. The formal talks today are scheduled to bring Annan together with a full array of senior U.S. and British officials from the U.S.-led occupation authority and the Iraqi Governing Council, including current President Adnan Pachachi.
"The United States has never been able to referee in Iraqi politics, and they have come to understand this now," a U.N. official, said. "This is why an external actor, the United Nations, is the only one who can play this role."
Yet all parties are warning against major or immediate agreements on terms for U.N. intervention. The initial meeting is to explore the options, with additional talks to follow. Bremer, Annan and Pachachi could talk again when they attend at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, later in the week, U.S. officials said. They added that further meetings will probably be needed to deal with the many issues involved.
Lynch reported from New York.