Iraq Standoff May Give UN the Lead Role

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UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, right, and Lakhdar Brahimi, Annan's special adviser on Iraq at UN headquarters in New York

In the heady aftermath of last year's lightning victory in Iraq, the Bush administration slapped down suggestion of putting the United Nations in charge of the country's transition to democracy. "The coalition, having invested this political capital and life and treasure into this enterprise (is) going to have a leading role for some time," Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters on April 11. "(The suggestion) that now that the coalition has done all of this and liberated Iraq, thank you very much, step aside and the Security Council is now going to become responsible for everything, is incorrect, and they know it and they were told it."

But Powell's comments came long before the stubborn insurgency took root, and before the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council failed to achieve either legitimacy or consensus. And long before the U.S. changed its plans, opting to replace the IGC with a new provisional government at caucuses of select Iraqis. Longer, still, even before the collapse of that revised plan in the face of determined opposition from the Shiite majority, whose spiritual leaders have demanded direct elections. Right now, the only aspect of the U.S. transition plan devised last November that remains on track is the June 30 date for dissolving the Coalition Provisional Authority and transferring sovereign political authority to an Iraqi interim government. But how such a government will be created has become an open question since the Shiites rejected the caucus plan, and as the Iraqi political equation becomes increasingly complicated by competing ethnic-political agendas, the Bush administration has looked to the UN to play a greater role in the political process.

It took UN special representative Lakhdar Brahimi to convince Shiite leaders that elections can't be held before June 30, for reasons of security and logistics. The U.S. had actually invited the UN in to rule on the election question because Shiite spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, would not take no for an answer from Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Baghdad. Indeed, it is a measure of the difficulties facing Bremer that Sistani, by far the most popular and influential leader in Iraq today, has steadfastly refused even to meet with any U.S. officials so as to avoid being seen to bless the occupation. And Sistani is considered a moderate, who has counseled restraint and avoided challenging the Coalition Provisional Authority — except when Bremer initially ignored his insistence that Iraq's next government be directly elected.

The historically disenfranchised Shiites, comprising almost two thirds of the population, have the most to gain from direct democracy, and their leaders are suspicious of political arrangements that might dilute the strength of their majority by giving disproportionate weight to the Kurdish and Sunni Arab minorities. But Shiite dominance is precisely what the Sunnis are trying to avoid, and some of them are ready to die to avoid it. The Kurds are digging in their heels and demanding to be recognized as a de facto state within a state. Bremer, forced into an increasingly tricky balancing act, had initially hoped that the Ayatollah's objections could be overcome with some tweaking of the caucus plan, but Sistani brought his supporters out into the streets to make clear that it was a recipe for instability. The deadlock prompted Washington to turn to the UN.

UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi concurred with Bremer's argument that the logistics and the perilous security situation prevented elections before June 30. But he also pronounced the caucus proposal dead, as well as affirming that the hand-over date remains a point of consensus among the Iraqis themselves and between them and Washington. He also noted broad agreement among Iraqis for elections at the earliest possible date, which by the UN's assessment would be eight months from now.

Having had the date affirmed but the caucus mechanism nixed, the next best option for an Iraqi provisional government now appears to be an expanded version of the Governing Council. It's far from ideal, however: The reason Bremer had proposed the caucuses in the first place was a recognition that the U.S.-appointed Council enjoyed little legitimacy among Iraqis, and its composition precluded it from making executive decisions — the IGC had failed even to agree on an acting President, instead rotating the position from month to month among nine different individuals, and remains divided over questions such as Kurdish autonomy and the role of Islam in an interim constitution, or Basic Law. The IGC revealed this week that it will also kick down the road the negotiation of a "status of forces" agreement that would create a legal framework for U.S. troops to remain in the country to provide security after June 30. And if the internal dynamic of the IGC is cause for concern, but the process of expanding it would be highly contentious precisely because each of the ethnic communities represented is already seeking greater representation.

But indications from Shiite leaders are that Sistani and his supporters will accept interim rule by some version of the IGC, precisely because they envisage its sovereignty and mandate as strictly limited. The primary function of the authority that takes the keys from Bremer on July 1, according to Sistani, is to organize elections by a specified date. It will, in his view, have no business privatizing state industries, doling out oil contracts, concluding treaties or taking any other decisions with long-term consequences. And the Shiite leadership wants the terms of the provisional government's mandate, and a strict timetable for elections, spelled out in a UN Security Council resolution. The Shiite Ayatollah wants the UN to play the leading role in Iraq's transition to sovereignty, he told a German magazine last weekend, and he expects it to oversee and supervise the election process.

If the U.S. is determined to cede political control by June 30 and the Iraqis are not prepared to allow an unelected body to assume full political control, a bridge is required — and given the willingness of the Shiite leadership to accept the UN as an honest broker, there may be growing pressure to use the Security Council as the vehicle to mandate a transition process that also creates a legal framework mandating the coalition to continue in its role as guarantor of security.

It may not be what the Bush administration had in mind, but options are narrow and Sistani has had his way, so far, precisely because of his ability to marshal mass support for positions on the street and to persuade even a majority of the IGC to back his positions. So much so, that it has become an article of faith for U.S. officials in Iraq that for a plan to work, it must have Sistani's blessing, even tacitly.

Originally, the Bush administration had hoped to cultivate a friendly, moderate Iraqi government via the IGC, to which it would incrementally hand over power, eliminating the need for UN involvement — which naturally opens the process up to the influence of countries hostile to the U.S. invasion. A friendly government nurtured under U.S. tutelage would have had the added advantage of giving the U.S. potentially its most pliable ally at the heart of the Arab world and making Iraq the key base for U.S. military operations throughout the region now that the Pentagon's footprint in Saudi Arabia is being sharply reduced.

Chances of realizing that "best-case" scenario appear increasingly remote. The Iraqis themselves are in a hurry to elect their own government, and the Bush administration is determined to hand off political authority in Baghdad. The interim thus created suggests both a greater role for the UN, and that the major political force driving Iraq's transition will be Iraqis not closely allied with Washington. Despite its heavy investment of life and treasure in regime-change in Iraq, the Bush administration may soon be approaching an "If you love something, let it go" moment.