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Annan to Meet Iraqi, Coalition Leaders to Determine UN Role in Iraq - 2004-01-17

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan meets leaders of the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led Coalition Monday to outline a role for the world body in Iraq's transition to self-rule. The meeting marks an about face for the Bush administration, which went to war in Iraq less than a year ago without the backing of the United Nations.

L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, arrives at U.N. headquarters Monday on a mission. The U.S.-led Coalition's plan for restoring sovereignty to Iraqis is in trouble. He is expected to try to persuade the world body to lend its considerable influence, its prestige and its resources, to help the process along.

It's been nearly a year since the diplomatic failure that led to the Bush administration's decision to oust Saddam Hussein without the Security Council's blessing. Since then, the strained relationship with Washington, and the bomb attacks in Baghdad that forced the evacuation of foreign U.N. staff, have left the world body with almost no voice in rebuilding Iraq, a job for which many believe the United Nations is ideally suited.

So it was a smiling U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard who welcomed the news that Mr. Bremer and top leaders of the Iraqi Governing Council would heed the secretary general's summons to come to New York on Monday.

"The fact that the three sides, if I can describe them that way, are sitting down together is I think an encouraging sign that we're beginning to work more inclusively," he said.

Middle East expert Gary Sick of Columbia University is among those who believe the Bush administration initially thought it could manage Iraq's transition to self-rule without the United Nations. But he says now officials in Washington are realizing that they need U.N. backing.

"I think the U.S. is trying very hard at long last to engage the U.N. in the transition of power in Iraq, " said Mr. Sick.

Among the first things Mr. Bremer wants from the secretary general is help in persuading Iraqis that it would be a mistake to try to hold elections in the immediate future. The leader of Iraq's majority Shiite community, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, wants direct elections before the scheduled June 30th transfer of sovereignty.

Mr. Annan has already written a letter advising against early elections. But Spokesman Eckhard says the secretary general remains firm that the transfer of sovereignty must be done promptly.

"It's not going to be easy to achieve the objective of transfer of sovereignty by the 30th of June, but I think we all want to see that objective reached," commented Mr. Eckhard. "And we want to work together to see it is reached, within the deadline if at all possible."

Columbia University's Gary Sick says the success of Monday's talks will hinge on how big a role the coalition is willing to give the United Nations in managing the transfer of sovereignty and the normalization process that must necessarily follow.

Mr. Sick says the fact that the talks are taking place at all indicates that the Bush administration understands it needs the world body's legitimacy. The United Nations, he says, speaks for the world community, and the United States has come to the conclusion that this legitimacy is worth a high price.