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UN Slowly Prepares to Resume Operations in Iraq - 2004-01-28

The United Nations is slowly gearing up to resume operations in Iraq. After pulling all international staff out late last year, Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a security liaison team in last week. This week, he dispatched a second security team to prepare for the arrival of a political mission expected shortly. The world body's return to Iraq is a painful step-by-step process.

The United Nations is still reeling from a series of recent attacks on its international staff. The worst was the suicide bomb blast at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad last August. That left U.N. special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others dead.

But with trouble brewing on the political front, largely in the form of a dispute with leaders of Iraq's majority Shiite community over whether elections are feasible, the U.S. and others are pleading with the world body to return.

So with great hesitation, U.N. officials are beginning the process of re-engaging. A two-person security liaison mission arrived in Baghdad last Friday. It's job is to lay the groundwork for eventual cooperation with the U.S. and British-led coalition on security issues.

That was followed this week with the arrival of a second team tasked with arranging security for an electoral team that is likely be dispatched soon to try to mediate the election dispute.

But in a sign of the lingering doubts about the wisdom of re-engaging, announcements of the two security teams was made only after they were on the ground. Spokeswoman Marie Okabe Monday brushed aside questions about the team and its activities in the name of security.

"We're talking about putting staff members at risk. And so we simply cannot at this moment give you details on the who, what, why and when," he said.

Washington's U.N. ambassador John Negroponte welcomed the Secretary-General's decision to begin the step-by-step process of re-engagement. He said the United Nations has an important role to play in mediating the dispute with Iraq's Shiite religious leaders, who want immediate direct elections instead of the caucus plan preferred by the coalition.

"We've invited a team to go out there to assess whether in fact, the conduct of elections is or is not possible during this transitional phase, and the second part of the question is if the determination is that elections are not possible, then what suggestions they might have as to how to make a caucus more transparent and more inclusive," he said.

Experts say the United States and its allies have a big responsibility to ensure that Iraq's majority Shiite community finds the electoral process credible. David Philips of New York's privately-funded Council on Foreign Relations says unless Iraqi Shiites feel they have proportional representation, they may reject the outcome.

"The Arab Shiites have gotten short end of the deal before. They are wary about having their interests circumvented once again. To be legitimate, their views must be reflected," he said.

In the interest of making the process more credible, U.S. and British officials are trying to persuade Secretary General Annan's newly-named senior political adviser Lakhdar Brahimi to take a lead role in Iraq. The highly regarded former Algerian foreign minister has made two trips to Washington in less than a week to speak to senior Bush administration officials.

In a speech Monday at Washington's National Press Club, Mr. Brahimi seemed to be resisting the U.S. pressure. He said he would be working on Iraq, but indicated he would decline the position of special envoy, a post that has been vacant since Sergio Vieira de Mello's death.

In a sign of the top U.N. leadership's thinking on Iraq, however, Mr. Brahimi warned that premature elections could do more harm than good. He said 'if you get your priorities wrong, elections are a very divisive process'.