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Brahimi — ready for the Iraq challenge

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.'s  special envoy for Iraq,  has a daunting task ahead — to smooth the transition from the U.S.-led Coalition Authority to stable Iraqi self-governance. NBC News' Linda Fasulo reports.
U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.Alessandra Tarantino / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

The whole world, it seems, from President Bush to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is looking to Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.'s special envoy for Iraq, to help tame the chaos by ushering in a stable, functioning government.

And he has very little time to accomplish what the United States and its allies have failed to do: A new caretaker government is slated to take over in Baghdad on June 30 while elections are scheduled by early in 2005.  

“If he says, ‘I can do it,’ we might have a chance.  If he says, ‘I can’t do it,’ then nobody can,” said German Ambassador Gunter Pleuger late last month, when he was serving as president of the U.N. Security Council.

Brahimi is already in the process of selecting the people who will make up the caretaker government that will succeed the U.S.-led Coalition Authority. Once that is accomplished, he will begin the equally daunting job of arranging elections for a permanent government, in January 2005. 

According to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Brahimi is making steady progress choosing the people who will serve in the new government. The diplomat has been working closely with Iraqis and with Robert Blackwill, an aide to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, to come up with acceptable names.

Powell said Thursday that once Brahimi brings forward his slate of officers, the Bush administration will take it to the Security Council and Annan, “for all of us to take a look at and examine the quality of these individuals.”

Diplomatic career in Algeria led to U.N.
Brahimi's years of experience as a diplomat have garnered him the respect necessary from both American and Arab diplomats to be successful in his delicate new role.

Richard Grenell, U.S. spokesman to the United Nations, called him “a good fit” for the Iraq assignment, adding, “We are comfortable with him; we like his style and trust him.” 

A North African diplomat described him as “the most eloquent messenger of the Muslim and Arab world,” who nevertheless understands that “issues cannot be tackled without the contribution of Western powers.”

Brahimi was born in Algeria in 1934 and educated in law and political science in Algiers and Paris. As a university student he became a member of the FLN, the Algerian independence movement, which he served in various capacities.

As a young diplomat he was Algeria’s ambassador to Great Britain, Egypt and Sudan, but his career as an international mediator did not take off until 1989, when, as undersecretary-general of the Arab League, he helped negotiate an end to Lebanon’s long and bitter civil war. 

Success in Lebanon led to a plum appointment as Algeria’s foreign minister in 1991, but events turned out far differently than he expected.

A fundamentalist Muslim party challenged the government in Algiers and seemed poised to win the national parliamentary elections.

Brahimi, a Sunni Muslim brought up in a secular environment, was sympathetic to tolerance and democracy, yet the regime of which he was a member chose to suspend the elections, and in the violent years that followed the government became increasingly repressive.

Brahimi resigned his post and has refused to talk publicly about that episode.

In 1993, Brahimi joined the United Nations and soon became one of then-Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s most trusted and respected lieutenants.

After overseeing a U.N. mission in Haiti, he was given the difficult and fruitless task in 1997 of trying to end the tangled civil war in Afghanistan. 

Like all before him, he failed to broker an Afghan settlement, finally resigning his post in 1999  in frustration with the Taliban and the many ethnic factions. The U.N. Security Council, impressed by the envoy's efforts, placed sanctions on the Taliban only a few days later.

Decisive moment — Afghanistan talks
Brahimi returned to Afghan affairs again in 2001, this time with great success as lead negotiator in creating a new government after U.S.-led forces routed the Taliban, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

During a two-week meeting in Bonn, he facilitated an agreement among key Afghan leaders that included the support of neighboring countries, the United States and its allies. As one Arab diplomat observed, “he appears gentle, but he’s a very tough-minded negotiator.” 

The decisive moment in Bonn came at the end of an all-night meeting, in which Brahimi sat patiently for seven hours straight, cajoling and prodding the delegates until they all signed the seven-page draft that outlined terms for a new government, the same one now sitting in Kabul. 

His performance impressed not only U.N. colleagues but the Americans as well. 

“He did good work in Afghanistan,” Grenell said. “We saw how well the U.S. worked with him.”

Known for candor
In between Afghan stints, Brahimi was asked to lead a panel examining U.N. peacekeeping efforts, which had come under criticism from many quarters as being inefficient and at times ineffective. 

The panel’s study, commonly known as the Brahimi Report, is widely praised as thorough and candid, offering important recommendations for change. In parceling out blame, the report did not spare member states or even Annan, a former director of peacekeeping who is now Brahimi’s boss.

The Algerian is known as a consensus-builder. He prefers to listen carefully to what people say before laying out his own views, a skill that will serve him well in forming the new Iraq.     

In speaking about his new role, Brahimi has said that only the Iraqis have the solution and that his role is simply to help them find it. He will need all his fabled patience as he canvasses the key players and listens to their demands and stipulations. 

One of his favorite expressions, according to a U.N. official who has watched him over the years is, “If you want to go fast, go slow.” 

For Brahimi, talk, even if tiresome, is always better than fighting. He recently commented that “there is never any military solution to any problem; even when you have total victory, you’ve got to end up talking to people.”

Although Brahimi often works his diplomatic magic quietly, he is also willing to speak his mind, bluntly, when it suits the occasion. 

Critical of coalition
In Iraq he has openly criticized the occupying authority’s “de-Baathification” process, which has removed thousands of Baath party members from government, as a waste of needed professional talent. 

More controversially, he has publicly chided the Bush administration’s support for a recent unilateral Israeli plan to resolve the Palestinian issue by withdrawing from Gaza, a move that is outside the terms of the so-called road map, which was endorsed by the United States, Russia and the European Union as well as the United Nations. 

In keeping with his low-profile approach to diplomacy, Brahimi avoids the appearance of acting unilaterally.

He “went bananas,” according to one U.N. insider, at recent media reports characterizing him as a “kingmaker” in Iraq, and denied reports that he was appointing members of the caretaker government. 

To the contrary, he has maintained, he is only implementing the “concerted” views of the many Iraqis with whom he has spoken. Just how “concerted” these views really are will be the litmus test of Brahimi’s mission.