Global Policy Forum

US Seeks UN Help With Talks On Iraq


Aim Is to Muster Regional Support

By Colum Lynch and Robin Wright

Washington Post
August 10, 2007

The Bush administration is proposing a series of U.N.-brokered talks in Baghdad between the United States and Iraq's neighbors in an effort to rally support for the beleaguered Iraqi government.

The initiative, outlined in an interview with Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, comes as American diplomats have struggled to gain regional backing for U.S. policies in Iraq. After a high-profile trip to the Middle East last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yielded few results, the administration is turning to the United Nations to help enlist Iraq's most influential neighbors, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in stabilizing the country. "I think you need regional help to get the Iraqis to come together," Khalilzad said. "For us, it's so hard to do this."

The evolving U.S. strategy is modeled on the approach used several years ago to build a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. With backing from Washington, the United Nations shored up support from Afghanistan's most powerful neighbors, including Iran and Pakistan. The resurgence of this approach underscores the rising influence of pragmatic U.S. diplomats who believe it is necessary to engage some of America's bitterest enemies in the Middle East. The move comes as the U.N. Security Council prepares for a vote Friday on a resolution expanding the United Nations' mediation role in Iraq. The resolution would grant the global body a clearer mandate to promote such international talks and to lead diplomatic efforts aimed at uniting Iraq's rival factions.

After reviewing its Iraq policy last winter, the White House committed to boosting diplomatic efforts in the region. But Washington has failed to win significant new cooperation from any of the countries bordering Iraq -- Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey. In Egypt last week, Rice met with the "six plus two" nations, an informal alliance of the six sheikdoms in the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt and Jordan, but the only tangible result was a Saudi offer to explore opening an embassy in Baghdad. "Regional diplomacy has turned out to be only lip service," said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "We have failed to create circumstances for political reconciliation and unity in Iraq. And we have not taken the next step to engage with Iraq's neighbors to support a process that produces that result."

U.S. efforts to directly enlist Iranian support in Iraq have also suffered setbacks. Since May, Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has twice held formal talks with Iranian ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi in Baghdad, but State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday that this new dialogue -- the first public contact between the two nations in 28 years -- has so far yielded no positive results. At a news conference Thursday, President Bush cautioned, "The American people should be concerned about Iran," adding, "They should be concerned about Iran's activity in Iraq, and they ought to be concerned about Iran's activity around the world." After the 2003 invasion, many of Iraq's neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, called for a regional forum under U.S. or U.N. auspices. But Washington did not want to legitimize Tehran and Damascus by engaging in diplomatic talks, Arab officials said. More recently, the Bush administration has sought to tap regional assistance and resources, they added, but with too little credibility and limited time left in Bush's term to meet critical goals.

Khalilzad said the new initiative would benefit from the United Nations' experience in international political negotiations. He added that he believes the expanded U.N. mission would be led by Staffan De Mistura, a Swedish national who has served with the United Nations in Lebanon, Iraq and other trouble spots. A more prominent international figure could be invited to lead the Iraq talks in the future, Khalilzad added. But De Mistura's appointment is facing stiff opposition from Baghdad, which favors Radu Onofrei, a former Romanian envoy to Iraq, to head the U.N. mission. "With all due respect to Ambassador Khalilzad, the decision will be taken by the secretary general, and the views of the government of Iraq have to be taken very seriously," said Feisal Amin al-Istrabadi, Iraq's deputy ambassador to the United Nations. Khalilzad said the new diplomatic initiative would provide a permanent forum for the various sides to hammer out compromises and would permit Crocker and other U.S. officials to hold regular meetings with the key regional powers. The "beauty" of the strategy, Khalilzad said, is that it puts the United Nations in the lead, but with strong political support from the United States.

"Without U.S. backing, their contacts won't carry much weight," Khalilzad said, "because people will say, 'What can you do for me?' "

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has drafted a letter in support of the Security Council resolution expanding the U.N. role in Iraq. But the letter requires that all U.N. diplomatic activities receive "prior consent" from the Iraqi government, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post. The letter reflects Iraqi fears that any U.N.-brokered deals could diminish the government's power, according to a U.N. official. The resolution also calls on the United Nations to play a more active role in addressing Iraq's growing humanitarian crisis. The body currently has about 200 international staff members in Jordan, and it channels aid into Iraq through a network of Iraqi nationals and nongovernmental organizations. But the United Nations is providing support for only a small fraction of the nearly 2 million Iraqis displaced inside their country.

U.N. officials said they are exploring "creative ways" to meet the needs of Iraqis who have been forced from their homes by the violence, but they are constrained by the scope of the humanitarian challenge and by the dangers of operating outside the heavily guarded U.N. compound in the Green Zone. "No one should underestimate the difficulties of operating in Iraq," a U.N. relief official said. "People are scared of their lives to go back there." Khalilzad said the United Nations would appoint David Shearer, an Australian relief official currently serving in Jerusalem, to coordinate humanitarian relief efforts in Iraq. "We want to be more helpful," said B. Lynn Pascoe, the U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs. "But nobody is charging off to either make the Americans happy or to do something else. What we're trying to do is be as helpful as we can for the Iraqis."

Wright reported from Washington.

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