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U.S. and UN Shift on Iraq

Prepared by: Greg Bruno
Updated: August 22, 2007

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Four years after a suicide bomb ripped through UN headquarters in Baghdad, killing envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 members of his staff, the Security Council is expanding the UN’s role (Guardian) in Iraq in an effort to rein in sectarian violence. The world body has vowed to focus on national reconciliation in the ethnically-splintered nation, increase humanitarian aid, and attend to human rights. The Security Council vote on August 10 marks a symbolic if vague course correction for the UN after years of security concerns forced a low profile. The resolution allows for a modest increase (NYT) in UN personnel—though still considerably less than its presence before the 2003 bombing—and staff members recently complained about the plan’s lack of attention (al-Jazeera) to security.

Yet the renewed UN commitment to Iraq signals more than a staffing increase: It is an about-face for the United States, and some worry, a life boat shot through with holes. The United States and its allies went to war without Security Council backing, and some question whether the UN’s legitimacy will be undermined (Gulf News) by the appearance of a bailout. Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, warned weeks before the vote that a UN rescue mission would be doomed, or even targeted by insurgents, without a promise from the United States to draw down troops. Others question how the UN can bolster its mission (Newsday) with a unionized staff that clearly wants out.

The discussion wasn’t even on the table in 2003, when the United States appeared uninterested in UN help. Then last month, almost four years to the day, the Bush administration made its most public appeal for course correction. In a New York Times op-ed, the current ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, suggested that a greater UN presence would help lend credibility and help “internationalize” recovery efforts. A CFR.org interview with former Ambassador William H. Luers explores the policy shift. Khalilzad praised the resolution as “a new page” in Iraq, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the decision. A smattering of Iraq’s neighbors also offered accolades, and Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has reportedly embraced the idea (AP).

Amid the cheers, however, come notes of caution. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Republican presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani, reflecting a thought common on the American right, said the UN has “proved irrelevant” in resolving “almost every major dispute of the last 50 years.” The UN itself offered a cautionary analysis. A June 5 quarterly update on UN assistance activities for Iraq warns that security threats are so high that “the only way to sustain the mission in the coming months” is to construct hardened facilities in Baghdad. The report by UN special envoy Ashraf Jehangir Qazi says redeployment of British forces in Basra led to the withdrawal of UN staff in that region due to declining security. The latest resolution leaves some wiggle room, suggesting that expansion efforts will materialize only “as circumstances permit.” Yet security remains a challenge in Iraq. The UN is seeking $130 million (Guardian) for the construction of a fortified compound in Baghdad, though funding remains a question mark. A spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the UN tells CFR.org the United States has made no specific earmark for UN security in the Iraqi capital aside from normal expenditures.

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