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Special Envoy Seeks Greater UN Role in Iraq - 2004-04-26

The U.S.-pledged deadline for handing over limited sovereignty in Iraq is only a little more than two months away. Yet details on that handover are still not clear. The United Nations Special Envoy to Iraq has laid out some proposals that envision a greater U.N. role in the country. The U.N. envoy appears to be drawing inspiration from a similar earlier assignment.

U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is suggesting the establishment of a caretaker government until elections, and the holding of a national conference on Iraq's future political structure. He says the ideas, especially for the conference, come from Iraqis.

But the proposals bear a striking similarity to measures applied by the United Nations in Afghanistan. That should come as no surprise. Prior to taking over his U.N. post on Iraq, Mr. Brahimi was Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy on Afghanistan - and, as such, was key in guiding Afghanistan to its current state, with an interim government that is preparing for elections in September. David Phillips, deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Mr. Brahimi is clearly drawing on his Afghan experience for creative inspiration.

?Lakhdar Brahimi was a key figure in bringing Afghans together at the Bonn Conference, the so-called Loya Jirga of different Afghan representatives,? Mr. Phillips said. ?He's adopting the same approach in Iraq - bringing together different constituencies to talk about Iraq's future and to build consensus towards the establishment of an interim government that will prepare the country for elections.?

The details of the Brahimi proposals are still being fleshed out. But Michael Rubin, who until earlier this year was political advisor to the U.S. Coalition Political Authority in Iraq, argues that the Brahimi ideas for Iraq - especially for an Afghan-style Loya Jirga, or grand council - are warmed-over proposals that have no place in Iraq. He says the current governing council should stay in place until the proposed elections of January 2005.

?A great deal of it was drawn from Lakhdar Brahimi's experience in Afghanistan. But the concept of a loya jirga is an Afghan concept, not an Iraqi concept. And the Iraqis have already pretty much rejected this plan,? Mr. Rubin said.

Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, says Mr. Brahimi clearly does not trust the U.S.-picked governing council to run the country in the leadup to elections in January 2005.

?One thing he's probably afraid of is that incumbency does grant certain advantages in elections," he said. "So if the interim governing council as now constituted stays in power through the next eight months, its members will be in a prime position to perhaps influence the election so as to insure their own return to power at the ballot box next winter."

The Council on Foreign Relations' David Phillips says the Bush Administration - which for so long has been reluctant to cede any role in Iraq to the United Nations - now appears willing to at least partially alter that stance.

?The U.S. is glad to have the U.N. involved in facilitating a dialogue, largely because it has realized it is unable to do so. But the U.N. doesn't have the commitment or the capabilities to be involved in the overall reconstruction,? Mr. Phillips said. ?It's important that the U.N. work in areas of its strength. Those are also areas where, at least for the time being, the Bush Administration seems to welcome U.N. participation.?

But Mr. Rubin says the United States should stay in, and the United Nations stay out.

He said, ?The United States needs to take and keep the lead because while the United Nations may have legitimacy in the cocktail parties of Western Europe and the capital of the United States, it doesn't have a lot of legitimacy over in Iraq.?

Whatever happens, analysts agree, the June 30 handover date should under no circumstances be changed, lest Iraq slide into further chaos.