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UN Faces Multiple Challenges in Iraq  - 2004-09-14

This week, the U.N. Security Council is continuing its discussions on its mission in Iraq, where the world body has been mandated to help coordinate nationwide elections in a security situation still fraught with danger. VOA's Patricia Nunan spoke to the deputy chief of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, Ross Mountain, who shared his somewhat-sober view on the situation the United Nations faces there.

It has been more than a year since the United Nations suffered one of its worst tragedies: the murder of 22 staff members in a suicide truck bombing at its Baghdad headquarters. For some, the question of whether the United Nations has recovered is hardly even debated.

Ross Mountain is the deputy head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI).

"No, the United Nations hasn't recovered," he said. "And, for many of us who lost friends, colleagues at that time, it will take a long time to recover. The institution, itself, in terms of dealing with Iraq, is still very much preoccupied with what happened. But we're back."

Since the bombing, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has restricted the number of international workers deployed in Iraq to just 35 individuals, working with a few hundred local staff. In addition to humanitarian work, UNAMI is tasked with helping Iraq's newly formed electoral commission organize nationwide elections by the end of next January.

It is a daunting task. Iraq remains plagued by insecurity, which officials say is the work of Saddam Hussein loyalists, the al-Qaeda terror group or any of an array of militant groups fighting the occupation. The result is near-daily mortar and rocket attacks on international offices; the abduction and at times murder of scores of laborers, aid workers and journalists; and car-bomb attacks aimed at coalition troops or members of the Iraq's interim administration. Some areas in the country remain virtual "no-go" territories for coalition forces, given the strength of the insurgent groups based there.

But Mr. Mountain says elections may still be held on time.

"My colleagues who are working in support of the Independent Electoral Commission are confident that -- provided that there are no untoward incidents, and that really is in the area of security -- then it should be feasible to hold the elections on time. Obviously security is a big 'if,'" he added.

There are multiple dimensions to the security problem for the United Nations, which has a long history in Iraq. Mr. Mountain says many people may only associate the United Nations with the economic sanctions and political will imposed on Iraq by the international community throughout the regime of former President Saddam Hussein -- a perception he says which must be overcome.

"We are however very aware that we have been linked, associated with the embargo that's been on Iraq, and indeed the arms inspections which doesn't necessarily make us the most popular institution in the world in Iraq," he noted. "We need to explain better the kind of work we're doing; not just in the political field, but also in terms of water supply, in terms of health, in terms of providing the food that goes into the public distribution system, the field of electricity and so on. I think we've probably been rather poor at that so far."

On another level, Mr. Mountain acknowledges it may also prove difficult to assert the United Nations' independence in Iraq. That is because the protection of its personnel is largely dependent on the multinational forces, which are headed by the Iraqi government, but largely consist of American and other coalition troops.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called on member states to contribute some 480 military personnel to form special protection units for U.N. staff and facilities. So far, few nations have agreed to participate.

"That is one of the reasons that the Security Council has sought to have a dedicated force to provide support for the United Nations in its operations in the country," he said. "But, with or without that force, the United Nations is an independent institution."

Since the United States invaded Iraq last year, without the approval of the U.N. Security Council, critics have charged that the United Nations has lost some of its legitimacy as an international arbitrator. Mr. Mountain disagrees. He says he feels no special burden to redeem the United Nations through its Iraq mission.

"There are some of us who don't believe that the United Nations needed to redeem its stature," he explained. "We were operating in Iraq as we do in all too many countries before the conflict, during the conflict and after the conflict. It's unfortunate that often there are some member states that do not understand the way we work and do not understand the global legitimacy of the institution. We're looking ahead to try to bring the support of the institution and its capacities to work for the benefit of the Iraqi people."

Mr. Mountain said that despite all the difficulties, the United Nations is in Iraq to stay.