Diplomats: Focus on Iraq

By Marc Perelman

Published August 29, 2003, issue of August 29, 2003.
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UNITED NATIONS — Despite a growing sense of shared fate in the war against Islamic terrorism, last week’s deadly bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad appears to have sharpened rather than reduced the debate between America and the world body over how to proceed in Iraq.

The reason, diplomats here say, is the continuing standoff over how deep a role Washington should cede to the U.N. in managing postwar Iraq. Washington is pressing other countries to send troops and money to Iraq, but diplomats here say this is unlikely to happen unless the Bush administration grants the U.N. a greater political role.

“There will be no risk-sharing if there is no power-sharing,” said a U.N. official close to Secretary-general Kofi Annan, stressing that this was the view of Annan and most Security Council members.

The August 20 bombing in Baghdad, which killed 23 people, including the U.N.’s top envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, has led to calls here for greatly increased cooperation between the U.N. and the United States in postwar Iraqi reconstruction. Diplomats and officials, smarting over the terrorists’ deliberate targeting of the world body, say they view Iraq as a place where multinational efforts could have a dramatic impact. By contrast, the near-simultaneous bombing of a bus in Jerusalem and the deadly car bombs that exploded the next day in Bombay have not led the U.N. to increase its focus on the conflicts in Israel and India, which diplomats say are half-century-old conflicts over which the U.N. has little influence.

In recent days, however, U.S. officials have stressed that they have no plans to relinquish military and political command in Iraq. A State Department official said Washington had proposed elements for a possible Security Council resolution but was waiting for feedback from council members before deciding whether or not to introduce the measure.

A new American-backed resolution will probably fail to muster enough support since it is unlikely to call for a significant enlargement of the U.N.’s role, several diplomats and officials said. But one Western diplomat at the U.N. countered that it was still early and that ongoing talks in foreign capitals could produce some progress in coming weeks.

“On the military side, there will continue to be a single command and it will be American,” the diplomat said. “ On the political aspect, there is some flexibility that could allow for a greater sharing of responsibility if the way to put Iraqis at the helm of their country can be spelled out more precisely.”

In recent weeks, Annan has called for a timetable for the handing over of government responsibility to an Iraqi representative body, suggesting that such a move would help garner more support at the U.N. But one European diplomat said that last week’s attack in Baghdad was causing many Security Council members to be even more adamant in demanding more international input in Iraq. So far, the diplomat said, the administration has rejected such calls. “There is a paradox in the U.S. position,” the diplomat said. “They say ‘We have enough troops,’ but they are leaning very, very heavily on several countries to send more troops. Or maybe they are just being cynical in preferring to have foreign guys shot instead of GIs.”

The European diplomat raised worries about America’s lobbying of other countries, including India, Pakistan and Turkey, to send troops to Iraq. One observer argued that sending Turkish troops to Iraq “is just mind-boggling” given Turkey’s historical conflict with Kurds and amid reports of fighting between Kurds and Turkmens in Iraq.

The Bush administration’s postwar strategy in Iraq has also come under attack in the United States, with some prominent Congress members calling for more American troops and more international involvement in Iraq. Overall, however, the objections appeared strongest at the U.N. One U.N. official said that many of his colleagues were “shocked” at what they felt was Washington’s attempt to use the recent attack against a U.N. building to garner support for American plans in Iraq after months of dismissing the world body as irrelevant.

“The Americans are in deep trouble in Iraq and they know it,” the U.N. official said. Referring to the reemergence of rumors of infighting between the State and Defense departments and the growing criticism of the Pentagon-led postwar management of Iraq, the official added: “The problem is they first have to adopt a common position in Washington.”

Despite growing frustrations with America’s postwar handling of Iraq, diplomats refused to blame U.S. policy for last week’s upsurge in terrorist attacks across the globe. “You can’t blame the Americans for everything,” the U.N. official said.

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