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October 22, 2004

US Wants UN Fig Leaf for Elections

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is at loggerheads with the U.S.-installed interim government in Iraq over national elections scheduled to take place in that strife-torn country in January 2005.

The Iraqi government, backed by the United States, wants Annan to dispatch a huge contingent of UN monitors to Iraq's capital Baghdad – primarily to provide legitimacy to what some observers suggest might evolve into a truncated election that shuts out voters from insurgency-hit provinces.

But the secretary-general, who has called the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq "illegal" and condemned the killings of civilians, is dragging his feet, refusing to make any commitment.

Responding to Iraqi criticism, Annan told reporters Thursday he does not plan to send his staff into an increasingly violent Iraq unless there is "genuine improvement in the security environment or solid arrangements for the protection of the staff."

Annan also made clear the United Nations is not "planning" or "organizing" the elections. "We are offering support and advice. And we will continue to do that."

On Wednesday, Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari was quoted as saying: "We feel very disappointed that the participation of UN employees is not up to the required level and there is a limited number of officials, and we are at the end of October."

The world body now has only 35 international staffers in Iraq, of which six are election experts. In contrast, the United Nations had more than 600 international employees monitoring elections in Afghanistan last week.

Asked if Iraq should postpone the vote because of the deteriorating security environment, Annan said: "It will be their call, not ours." The "ownership" of the elections belongs to the Iraqis, he added.

So far only one country – Fiji – has pledged to send troops to protect UN staff members in Iraq, despite a Security Council resolution urging all 191 member states to help provide a military force.

Fiji is sending about 130 troops, while Australia has volunteered to provide logistics and military equipment.

"It will probably take weeks before the Fijians are trained on how to handle Australian weapons," one diplomat told IPS. Judging by the widespread insurgency, he added, the more important question is, "Who is going to protect the Fijian force?"

During the last few weeks Iraqi insurgents have raised the level of violence, including a daily toll of roadside bombings, suicide attacks and killings of Iraqi civilians, police and national guard who "collaborate with the enemy."

There has also been an increase in kidnappings, mostly of foreigners and humanitarian workers from relief agencies.

U.S.-led forces continue to respond militarily with helicopter attacks and aerial bombings of houses believed to harbor insurgents. But in most of these bombings, the casualties have been civilians.

In September, Annan called the U.S. invasion of Iraq "illegal," provoking negative reactions both from the White House and from U.S. politicians.

White House Spokeswoman Claire Buchan said U.S. officials disagree with Annan. "We previously made clear that coalition forces had authority [to invade Iraq] under several UN resolutions."

"If Kofi had his way, [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein would still be in power," said Senator John Cornyn, a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.

Pressure on Annan will grow and criticism of his decisions escalate, say Middle East experts, human rights activists and U.S. academics.

Yet, it would be "incredibly damaging" for the credibility of the United Nations for Kofi Annan to agree to conduct the Iraq elections in January, says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).

"The country is obviously being torn to pieces and elections in such circumstances are meaningless. Any participation by the United Nations in the elections gives them a legitimacy they do not and should not have and condones the incredible brutal occupation and war," Ratner told IPS.

"How Kofi Annan could be even considering this after the killing of so many UN officials makes no sense," Ratner added.

After the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad in August 2003, which claimed the lives of 22 UN employees, the United Nations withdrew the last of its 375 international workers from Iraq.

Ratner said Annan should stand firm and refuse to cave in to "U.S. pressure and U.S. power."

"Kofi Annan has courageously called the war illegal and contrary to the UN Charter; he should continue to stand up to the United States. If he does not speak out and show some backbone, who will?" asked Ratner.

Earlier this month the Federation of International Civil Servants' Association (FICSA) and the Coordinating Committee of Independent Staff Unions and Associations of the UN System (CCISUA) warned Annan against deploying UN employees in Iraq.

In a joint letter, they said that not only should no UN workers be sent to Iraq, but "those already deployed [should] be instructed to leave as soon as possible."

"I think Kofi Annan will be under enormous pressure," says Margaret Karns, who teaches courses on international organizations, foreign policy and diplomacy at the University of Dayton in Ohio State.

Whether or not people agree elections should be held as scheduled in January (or can be held), no one argues with the importance of the United Nations playing a central role in organizing and running the election process, and that this process should be well underway by now, she said.

But the kidnapping Wednesday of the head of the relief agency CARE and the organization's withdrawal from Iraq makes it very clear that Baghdad and other areas are not safe, Karns added.

"Kofi Annan and UN personnel will need to be much more receptive to the importance of security protection. The other alternative is for Annan to discuss candidly with the Iraqis and the Security Council the question of whether to defer elections and how to judge when a better time would be," Karns told IPS.

"If there is any clear lesson from the Bosnia experience, it is that elections should not be rushed. Early elections do not contribute to peace-building but may make it more difficult by hardening fracture lines within a society. Iraq is more similar to Bosnia right now than many people want to admit, I think," she added.

On Monday the UN University published a book that also warns early elections in Iraq might increase violence and extremism in the crippled country.

Based on studies of previous elections in post-conflict states, the volume, The UN Role in Promoting Democracy, recommends that two years should elapse in such societies before polls are held.

"It is obvious that the United States is yet again putting pressure on the secretary-general to allow the international organization to be an integral part of U.S. foreign policy," says As'ad AbuKhalil, associate professor of political science at California State University.

But Annan has to be concerned about the safety of UN staff: he still bears responsibility for what befell UN offices in Baghdad as he rushed to facilitate the U.S. occupation plan, he added.

"Annan has to be cautious this time as he worries about the further erosion in UN standing in the Middle East," AbuKhalil told IPS.

The UN chief has recently been issuing reports about Syrian intervention in Lebanon, while U.S. fighter jets bomb civilian neighborhoods in Baghdad, he added.

"The irony may be missed in the U.S. press, but not in the Middle East press, where the United Nations is seen as a mere tool of U.S. foreign policy," said AbuKhalil, author of The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism, and Global Power.

Annan should insist on U.S. withdrawal of troops, and the deployment of a real international force representing countries that did not participate in the U.S.-led war and occupation of Iraq, he added.

Otherwise, he "will go down in history as the secretary-general who has helped in the erosion of UN credibility and effectiveness," AbuKhalil said.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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