Global Policy Forum

Small Team of UN Personnel

Integrated Regional Information Networks
August 17, 2004

About 30 United Nations personnel are in Iraq as part of a conference to name a national assembly, the first time a significant number of UN international staff have been in the country in almost a year, a UN spokesman told IRIN in Baghdad. The UN officials are monitoring the conference and helping Iraqis prepare for an election expected to be held in January, Nejib Friji, the UN spokesman for Iraq, said. UN workers are expected to take the lead role in preparing for the national polls in January 2005.

"This is a very important and historical conference," Friji said. "It's a milestone in a strategic journey that will lead them to elections."

The UN expects to send in more personnel soon, Friji said, but this will depend on the situation there. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan made it very clear recently that there must be a secure environment before UN staff can return to the country in large numbers. "Security permitting, the UN will not hesitate to return as massively as its mandate will require," Friji said. "The bottom line is, the UN cannot work in a context of a security threat."

Mortars killed two people on Sunday at the start of the conference, breaching a massive security perimeter around the green zone, where the discussions, expected to last three days, are being held. A "curfew" from 8 am to 4 pm kept traffic light in some parts of the city, while police and newly trained Iraqi soldiers patrolled streets cordoned off around the centre of Baghdad, where the green zone is located. The UN evacuated all international staff following a truck bomb attack on its Baghdad headquarters on 19 August 2003, in which 22 people were killed, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Secretary-General's former special representative for Iraq.

United Nations workers are ready to help Iraq back to its feet, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, the new UN special representative for Iraq, said in a local TV interview on Monday. "We understand this is not an easy task. Iraq faces so many challenges," Qazi said. "[But] Iraq is a blessed land. It just needs the opportunity it has been denied so long."

UN staff will also be meeting interim government leaders while they are in the country, Qazi said. The special representative is expected to be in Iraq for several more days before leaving and returning at a later date. He was most recently Pakistan's ambassador to the United States. "I and my team will be meeting with a full range of economic and political leaders to find the best way to cooperate with the Iraqi government," Qazi said.

At the same time, conference members decided to send a delegation to the holy city of Najaf, where Mehdi army fighters have been battling US troops. The delegation was expected to meet with Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr, who has been leading the insurgents, to ask him to lay down his weapons and join the conference. "It's clear there's a group that wants a stable Iraq," said Ibrahim Nawar, a UN adviser to the conference. "People don't trust the political process here. They just want law and order."

Conference-goers were expected to name 81 people to join 19 former Governing Council members in the new government body. While the body will have only quasi-legal legislative authority, it will be able to veto resolutions put forth by interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, among other things. "We have to begin somewhere," Friji said. "I'm not sure the conference is a total success in terms of the mandate, but it is a beginning. In my view, the numbers are success."

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