UNITED NATIONS—In the year and a half that I have been writing this column, no topic has been more dominant in U.N.-U.S. relations than Iraq, though other issues such as the Bush administration's undermining of important U.N. agency social programs may matter more in the long run for many more people in the world. But because this is my last column for U.N. Wire, it is worth returning once more to Iraq, but with a focus on the future.
By coincidence, Shashi Tharoor, the U.N. undersecretary general for communications, spoke candidly on this subject last Wednesday to a small invited audience in New York assembled by the Women's Foreign Policy Group, which is based in Washington.
There was news in what he had to say. There was also reflection about what both sides had learned in this bitter confrontation over the U.N. role in Iraq. Not the Security Council's role, but that of the U.N. Secretariat and the agencies poised to go back to helping Iraqis.
The news Tharoor conveyed was that he said he hoped the secretary general's newly appointed special representative in Iraq, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi of Pakistan, would be arriving in Baghdad by the end of this month, bringing with him a skeleton staff of about 20 people.
This time, Tharoor said, U.N. officials will be quartered inside the "Green Zone," where the interim Iraqi government has its headquarters, along with the U.S. and British ambassadors, among other officials and diplomats. This is a heavily fortified area that has so far escaped all but peripheral acts of terrorism.
Last year, before and even after the horrific bombing in August that killed Qazi's predecessor, Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil, some U.N. officials did a certain amount of self-righteous bragging about how they rejected the U.S. security umbrella, as if this made their mission somehow purer and their links to the Iraqis closer.
The subsequent searing internal U.N. report on security failures that contributed to the deadliness of the bombing drew attention to measures suggested by the United States that the United Nations had rejected in Baghdad. The ruins of the U.N. headquarters building speak volumes about the wisdom of thinking that befriending Iraqis guaranteed anything, least of all safety. Tharoor called the saboteurs everyone now confronts in Iraq "determined and fanatical killers."
That's one lesson learned by the world body. "In the short term, we have no choice but to accept help from the coalition," Tharoor said. The United Nations could not afford another bombing—there were two before officials were withdrawn last year, the second in September—or risk hostage-taking.
"We put behind us what happened last year," Tharoor said, referring to a series of insulting actions and comments from the United States. "The coalition won the war," he said, and all the United Nations wants now is to see "the Iraqis win the peace."
Deliberate attempts by Washington to sideline the United Nations in Iraq must still rankle, however. Tharoor did repeat some of that dossier, notably how the United States made clear its intentions to work without the United Nations when the war ended (before the peace unraveled) and did not even mention a role for the organization in the political rebuilding of Iraq until January of this year, when it was evident that influential Iraqis didn't want to talk with the coalition leaders and the U.S.-led administration was clueless in running a political process.
By then it was also clear, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress known until recently as the General Accounting Office, that the United States was also bungling the remains of the oil-for-food program and Iraqis were beginning to face shortages.
"They came to the U.N. in mid-January saying, 'Sorry, we need your help,'" Tharoor said. Lots of lessons there for the U.S. side.
Over the next few months, the United Nations has a lot to do in Iraq in a short time, he said. A national conference of Iraqis, intended to serve as an informal assembly, should be called into session this summer. National elections loom in January 2005. The United Nations has already helped the Iraqi interim government set up an election commission. Tharoor noted that the world body has run 75 elections in the last five years and is bringing a lot of expertise to a potentially explosive situation.
Iraqis working for the United Nations in many areas have been busy in the absence of international officials. Tharoor said that they never wanted publicity, which could draw attacks. But I have more than a suspicion that the U.S.-led coalition didn't want the United Nations to get credit for its rehabilitation of schools and hospitals, for purifying 11 million liters of water or providing seeds and fertilizer for this year's crops, among other accomplishments. To Western media organizations, these efforts have seemed to be invisible.
And what about those weapons of mass destruction? The United Nations now plans to return with its wealth of knowledge and experience to help the Iraqis close the books on that era.
More important, after two wars and years of confrontation, the inspectors are going back at the invitation of Iraq. That's a milestone.