The United Nation Returns to Iraq

Four years after an explosives-packed suicide cement truck blew up and destroyed the U.N. headquarters building in Baghdad, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to expand its operation in Iraq.

The Aug. 19, 2003, terror bombing wounded over a hundred people and murdered 22. The dead included the distinguished Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was serving as the United Nations’ "special representative" in post-Saddam Iraq. Then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan had prevailed on de Mello to take the job. De Mello viewed himself as a diplomat with a lot of experience in "the field" — which he once described in an essay as a place where he had "seen the best and worst of what we have to offer each other."

Everyone who has worked in the world’s various hells understands that confronting them requires charity, mercy, discipline, courage and sacrifice. That was de Mello’s point and why he went to Iraq.

In the wake of the 2003 massacre, the United Nations effectively withdrew from Iraq, maintaining an office in Jordan and a flickering presence in Baghdad. In July 2004, I visited the United Nations’ plywood-walled cubbyhole in the Green Zone. An Australian Army colonel and a British Army lieutenant colonel manned the office. The office had a U.N. sign on the door. We drank tea from mugs with U.N. logos.

Arguably, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546 (passed on June 8, 2004) ratified the general thrust of U.S. political development policy in Iraq. It mapped a route to full Iraqi sovereignty and stated that the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) would play a leading role in elections, "consensus building," national reconciliation, and judicial and legal reform.

The U.N. Elections Assistance Division (UNEAD) did provide technical support to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. Its election work received scant attention, which was probably intentional. The lack of fanfare curbed political criticism both outside and inside Iraq.

The United Nations has many Iraqi critics. Iraqi Shias assert it actually supported Saddam and helped him rob Iraq of its resources. The United Nations’ corrupt Oil for Food program certainly financed Saddam’s palaces. Claims of U.N. "moral authority" elicit a snicker. Kurds also argue the United Nations collaborated with Saddam’s regime.
Iraqi Sunni Arab organizations, however, regard the United Nations as a potential ally. Sunni Arab states have clout within the organization. Iran, which bills itself as Shia Islam’s champion, has far less influence.

When Resolution 1546 passed in 2004, a few of us hoped that it signaled a willingness by France, Germany, Russia and other coalition critics to help Iraq rebuild. It didn’t. Thus, it’s easy to dismiss the Security Council’s August 2007 decision to help foster Iraqi national reconciliation.

However, France and Germany’s feckless leaders of 2004 are gone. The dynamic Nicholas Sarkozy has replaced the corrupt Jacques Chirac. In Germany, the pragmatic Angela Merkel has replaced Gerhard Schroeder. American U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the new resolution recognizes that "what happens in Iraq has strategic implications not only for the region, but for the entire world" and should serve as "a springboard to greater international support for Iraq’s government and people."

Springboard is a choice word. It will be years before the United Nations has the personnel and infrastructure inside Iraq to do more than encourage dialog and solicit aid.

Perhaps the resolution is more symbolic than substantial. Symbolism in lieu of substance, which usually means rhetoric in lieu of action, characterizes almost every U.N. endeavor. However, this may be the case where symbolism promotes discrete but productive action. Iraq’s Al Azzaman Website quoted a senior U.N. spokesman as saying: "The U.N. is not concerned with what America wants. … We as an international organization will work to fulfill Iraqi ambitions and cooperate with the government."

The United Nations gives the Iraqi government a new diplomatic channel to coax anti-U.S. opposition groups into the political process. And that is most welcome.