Dilemma for UN in Expanding Iraq Presence?

June 12, 2007

Ban Ready for Greater Role; Can UN Assert Independence from MNF Protection?

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, in a newly released report, has indicated that he would accept a larger role for the UN in Iraq, pending solutions to security problems. The quarterly report on UN activities in Iraq, issued to the UN Security Council, shows that the world body is exploring ways to expand its Iraq mission, nearly four years after its Iraq headquarters were destroyed by a massive bomb blast that killed over 20 of its staff.

The issues preventing the UN from assuming a larger role in Iraq, the report suggests, are related to the security situation itself, and to the question of funding the construction of "hardened" infrastructure that would allow UN staff to operate in the poor security situation. However, some observers warn that an increased UN presence could tie the organization closely to the US military presence in Iraq, if clear political distinctions between the UN and the Pentagon are not drawn. Such an association may have unfavorable ramifications for the agency, as some suggest was evidenced in the 2003 bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad, which killed 22 UN staffers including its Brazilian chief of mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello. This would present a dilemma to the UN, since it is clear from Ban's recent report that the UN is dependent on the Coalition forces for security, and would be even more dependent on the MNF if its mission were to expand.

"The major development in the reporting period was the increased threat of indirect fire into the International Zone. These attacks have become increasingly concentrated and accurate and often consist of multiple mortars and rockets landing within minutes of each other," the secretary general writes, later adding, "The overall security environment presents a major challenge for the United Nations, particularly for its staff in the International Zone in Baghdad." The UN has taken several security measures in the last three months in response to increasing insecurity in the International Zone and other areas, including relocating its Green Zone staff to "more hardened accommodation facilities." One UN staff worker was kidnapped and one reported missing in the last three months. Their whereabouts are still unknown, the report says.

The UN mission in Iraq is known as the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq, or UNAMI. While UNAMI's presence in Baghdad is adding "overhead protection" to its facilities in the Green Zone, Ban's report expresses concern that the reinforced building may still be vulnerable to heavier ordinance attacks. "The only long-term solution to this dilemma is the expeditious construction of a hardened integrated compound, with the necessary structural integrity to withstand impacts from high-calibre ordnance." In the long run, however, the report proposes "purpose-built structures" for the United Nations missions, in order to consolidate and expand the UN role in Iraq. "It is my intention to make arrangements for the expeditious construction of a new United Nations building in Baghdad. Although the high level of specification for security features will inevitably lead to relatively high construction costs, it is felt that there is no realistic alternative if the Mission is to continue operations," Ban writes.

Elsewhere in Iraq, UN staff were withdrawn from the Basra Palace compound on April 28, along with multinational forces, who handed the facility over to Iraqi security forces in April. The withdrawal of the MNF troops led to a security deterioration around the perimeter of the facility, Ban writes. The UN also maintains a compound in Irbil, which the organization is considering expanding. Outside of Iraq, UNAMI staff operate in Kuwait City and Amman, although the Ban writes that the eventual plan involves closing the Kuwait City offices and consolidating external UNAMI operations in Amman.

Ban signals the world body's openness to an increased UN presence in Iraq: The United Nations remains committed to assisting the Government of Iraq. There have been growing calls for a larger United Nations role in Iraq. Circumstance permitting, I would consider an expanded role and presence in Iraq where possible. For this, clear direction from the Security Council and the Government of Iraq would be essential and better coordination with our major international partners would also be welcomed. Of particular importance would be the creation of necessary infrastructure and operational conditions for the United Nations to play its role. This includes adequate protection and security arrangements, air support and, in particular, the construction of secure facilities.

Ban's indication of his readiness for an expanded UN role in Iraq has raised at least some eyebrows, Inter Press Service reports from the agency's New York headquarters. Some diplomats and observers suspect the beginnings of a US "handover" to the United Nations. One unidentified Asian diplomat told the news agency, "With the war turning out to be a huge political liability for the ruling Republican Party at the upcoming elections in November, it is a safe guess the White House may eventually dump Iraq on the United Nations." Other observers polled by IPS suggest that the UN might play a positive role in Iraq if its mission is understood to be a departure from, and autonomous to, the policies of the United States. An increased UN role without a clear commitment by the US to withdraw its military from Iraq would only tie the UN too closely to the US military presence in Iraq, they suggest.

"Other than providing whatever humanitarian aid is feasible under these dire circumstances, the only proper U.N. role would be to strongly oppose the U.S. occupation of Iraq," said Normon Soloman, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. Some observers at the time suggested that the 2003 attack on the United Nations compound in Iraq indicated that the UN was perceived in the eyes of Iraqi insurgents as being closely involved in the multinational military in Iraq. Even so, Ban's own report suggests that the United Nations is almost totally dependent on foreign forces for its own security.

The August 2003 bombing of the UN mission in Baghdad was one in a series of attacks on international workers in Iraq, which led to then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to withdraw nearly all UN staff from the country in October 2003. A skeleton crew of 35 UN staffers returned to the country the following August, the AP reports. That number has increased, but has not evolved into full-blown UN relief or reconstruction activity in the country, due to security concerns. The UN's activities in Iraq presently include consulting with Iraqi elites and data gathering, according to Ban's report.

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