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UN’s Iraq Mission Ready for Larger Role as U.S. Forces Leave

The United Nations is poised to play a larger role in Iraq’s economic development and political reconciliation as U.S. military forces withdraw.

The Security Council voted 15 to 0 today to extend the UN mandate in Iraq for 12 months. UN officials say the coming year will see its mission restored from the crippling explosion of a 2003 terrorist attack in Baghdad, the worst in the world body’s history.

“There has been a strong feeling that there is a lot more we can do than we have been doing,” UN Under-Secretary-General Lynn Pascoe said in an interview after returning from a trip to Iraq last month. “We think that in this period we will be able to step up our efforts.”

U.S. and Iraqi officials say they want a stronger UN push to resolve a dispute over oil fields in northern Iraq, where the government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government both seek control. They’re also seeking implementation of a UN-drafted $1.9 billion economic aid plan that aims by 2014 to revive a private sector decimated by the U.S.-led invasion and ensuing civil war. At least 20,000 companies shut their doors, the UN said.

The UN will “play a critical role” in Iraq, said Curtis Cooper, spokesman for the U.S. State Department’s office of international organizations. The UN should also increase efforts to help the 1.75 million Iraqis who have been forced from their homes by the civil war, and resolve remaining issues with Kuwait stemming from Iraq’s 1990 invasion, he said.

Leaving ‘Caves’

UN confidence is partly based on the planned move into the former office of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Baghdad, refurbished with $50 million in Iraqi funding. Many UN workers in Baghdad have been living in containers that Pascoe called “caves,” and are compelled to travel in U.S.-mandated security convoys.

The new UN compound will allow the permanent move into Iraq of about 250 UN workers who have been commuting from Amman, Jordan, a security precaution since the August 2003 suicide bombing in Baghdad that killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of the UN mission, and 21 other workers. That will increase UN staffing in Iraq to more than 1,100 by mid-2012, representing 15 different aid and development agencies.

While final security arrangements aren’t set, Pascoe said the withdrawal of U.S. forces, to be replaced mainly by Iraqi security, should increase UN mobility by eliminating the need for large convoys. Workers will be out from under the “U.S. security bubble,” he said.

Iraqi Forces

“Iraqi forces will step in to fill the gap, and they are capable now,” Hamid al-Bayati, Iraq’s ambassador to the UN, said in an interview.

Optimism is tempered by the UN’s troubled history in Iraq, including former Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s assertion that the U.S. invasion was illegal, lack of funds for the development plan and persistent targeting of the UN by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.

“The UN will more and more have to provide for its own security,” Joost Hiltermann, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in an interview. “That is going to be a cost and risk factor. The UN is rather allergic to risk. The trauma is still there and no one wants to be responsible for the next attack. There is an overemphasis on security, which affects effectiveness.”

‘Continuing Threat’

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a July 15 report on the mission in Iraq that there has been a “significant” rise in assassinations of political leaders, government officials and security personnel in the past three months. Recent attacks on U.S. military installations “underscore the continuing threat UN operations face in Iraq,” he said.

Of the $1.9 billion needed for the development plan, which includes cutting Iraq’s 22.9 percent poverty rate by 30 percent, only $538 million is in hand. Foreign government aid has dried up and a national law barring international organizations from receiving Iraqi funds, according to UN economist Simona Marinescu.

“There is no fresh money coming in,” she said. Initiatives to spur business growth, reduce the number of state-owned companies and diversify Iraq’s oil-based economy haven’t made it into law. “Everything is ongoing,” Marinescu said.

Progress on settling the border dispute between the Kurds and central government also is problematic.

“The gaps are huge,” Pascoe said.

Kurdistan Arrangement

Departure of U.S. forces also will lead to the end of the so-called Combined Security Mechanism, consisting of elements of American, Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces. No successor arrangement has been negotiated, leaving a security gap in the volatile northern region.

“There is a real question about how much we can help,” Pascoe said, referring to the security gap. “The interesting thing is how eager everyone is that we stay deeply involved. They see the UN as the one impartial body everyone listens to, and they want us to do more.”

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