U.S. officials say Washington will support U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's call for three-party talks aimed at defining a United Nations role in Iraq's transition to self-rule. The talks are to be held later this month at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Before heading off on his year-end vacation, Secretary General Annan invited the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council to a meeting in New York in mid-January.
The purpose of the three-way gathering, Mr. Annan said, is to clarify what the coalition and the Iraqis want the United Nations to do between now and the end of June, when a transitional government takes power in Baghdad.
The Governing Council immediately accepted the invitation, but Coalition officials balked. They said it should be Iraqis, and not the U.S. dominated coalition, that are at the forefront of any talks on their country's future.
But behind that statement, observers say, is a clear impatience in Washington with Secretary General Annan's reluctance to play a more prominent role in Iraq following last August's bomb attack on U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. That impatience was evident last November, when the coalition and the governing council signed an agreement on transferring power to the transitional government. The agreement makes no mention of the United Nations.
At his end-of-year news conference, Mr. Annan wondered aloud whether that was in fact a diplomatic slap in the face. "I think the question of whether I'm suspicious as to whether they want us in or not - of course the question has been posed since the agreement of 11 November, [which] did not have one word about the U.N, did not mention the U.N.," said Mr. Annan. "There have been some questions as to whether this was an omission or a message. But this is something we will clarify when we sit down."
Getting coalition officials to sit down, especially at a U.N. table, is not proving so easy. U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard says that even during his holidays, Mr. Annan has been in regular touch with Secretary of State Colin Powell and other senior U.S. officials to ensure that the coalition would respond favorably to Mr. Annan's invitation to talks later this month.
"The secretary general has, while he's been on vacation and right through to this morning, had contacts with senior officials in the administration," said Mr. Eckhard. "It continues to be his hope that the meeting which will take place here on the 19th will be a three-way meeting."
A U.S. official confirmed to VOA Monday that the Coalition would be represented at the talks. He said, however, that the level of that representation would depend on exactly what the secretary general wants to talk about.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Bush administration remains supportive of the idea of talks, but suggested that a low-level coalition delegation might be sent, rather than one headed by U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer.
U.N. spokesman Eckhard said the January 19 talks will go ahead, with or without a senior coalition representative. The Governing Council will be represented by its current president, Adnan Pachachi, and Massoud Barzani, who will hold the presidency next month.
Mr. Eckhard said the Iraqis are also scheduled to meet with the Security Council during their U.N. visit.