U.N. Returns to Baghdad in Force
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the United Nations is back in Baghdad. Hundreds of foreign and Iraqi staffers are advising and supporting the Iraqi authorities. The U.S. all but pulled out of Iraq after a truck bombing in August 2003. The attack killed the U.N. special representative and 21 other staff members.
But as NPR's Anne Garrels reports, the U.N. has returned and has become a major player.
ANNE GARRELS: As bad as things are in Iraq, the country still risks falling into even more chaos, becoming what's known as a failed state. Staffan de Mistura is the Secretary-General special representative in Baghdad.
Mr. STAFFAN DE MISTURA (Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq): We can try to avoid that by being with them every step.
GARRELS: De Mistura, a Swede, is one of the U.N.'s most experienced diplomats. His arrival here a few months ago coincided with pre-election debates in the U.S. about America's future role - and that role will change by the end of the year no matter what because the U.N. mandate for U.S. forces in Iraq will end to be replaced by a bilateral U.S.-Iraqi agreement which is now being negotiated.
De Mistura is looking for areas where the U.N. can have an impact. One, is the status of the northern region around Kirkuk where the fusion of oil, politics, and ethnic tensions is explosive. Under pressure from the Kurds, Iraqi politicians agree to hold a referendum to determine whether this oil-rich area would become part of the Kurdish region or remain under the administration of Baghdad. De Mistura played a key if quiet role in persuading the Kurds to postpone the referendum.
Mr. DE MISTURA: There was a crisis coming up - 31st of December was the deadline for a referendum on Kirkuk. If that referendum would have been forced through in a hostile way, it would have been a defeat for everyone.
GARRELS: But the Kurds suspect delaying the referendum is a way to keep them from getting what they feel is rightfully theirs - De Mistura bought some time but the issue is far from resolved.
Unlike many places where the U.N. operates, Iraq actually has money - billions of dollars in oil revenues - but there has been no agreement yet on how these revenues are to be distributed and de Mistura joins the chorus of those saying the Iraqi authorities are not using this money effectively.
Mr. DE MISTURA: What they need is the government of Iraq, which is a rich government, to get much more mobilized…
GARRELS: Especially, says de Mistura, when it comes to helping more than four million Iraqis who have been displaced by violence. As U.N. staffer Guy Siri puts it, money isn't any good if the structure isn't in place to use it.
Mr. GUY SIRI (U.N. Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator, Iraq): That's why we have to help them in designing their structure.
GARRELS: The U.N. is also helping the Iraqis prepare for local elections which both the U.N. and the U.S. think are necessary. Many Iraqis are dissatisfied with the current non-representational regional governments. Their parliament recently passed a law that would've paved the way for these elections by October. It was ultimately vetoed by the presidency council because parties in the ruling coalition fear they might lose new elections. While negotiations continue among Iraqis, de Mistura and his staff are making sure the mechanism for elections is in place so that at least will not be an excuse for postponing them indefinitely.
Sandra Mitchell(ph), de Mistura's advisor on elections, works closely with the Iraqi election commission to make sure the elections will be credible.
Ms. SANDRA MITCHELL (De Mistura's Advisor, Iraqi Election Commission): There is portion of this society that seems to have maybe lost some - a little bit of faith in this thing we call democracy.
GARRELS: Given the tens of thousands of U.S. personnel here, the U.N. presence is relatively small but de Mistura says many Iraqis have made it clear they want the U.N. here.
Mr. DE MISTURA: They feel that we are neutral and impartial. They feel that we can provide them with advice in areas that they are not familiar with or competent with.
GARRELS: But not all Iraqis feel that way, and de Mistura says the bombing in 2003 changed the U.N. forever.
Mr. DE MISTURA: We thought that the blue flag, to which we are dedicating our professional life, was in a way a protection - a mantle which would stop people to want to kill us because after all, we were helping people. That has changed radically.
GARRELS: He says Iraq may well be the most challenging mission the U.N. has. And while the U.N. is back, it operates with much more caution and with much better security.
Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Iraq had a pair of high profile visitors today. Vice President Dick Cheney made his second trip in 10 months. He met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and General David Petraeus, America's top commander there.
NORRIS: Also in Iraq, presumptive Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, it was his eighth visit. He arrived yesterday on what he says the fact-finding mission unrelated to the presidential campaign. Today, the senator told CNN that he is seeing real security progress on the ground.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Now the question is, will we be able to continue that progress to the point where the Iraqis take up more and more of those responsibilities and we withdraw? We're not there yet, at least in my assessment.
NORRIS: After leaving Iraq, McCain is set to visit Israel and Europe.
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