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Salim Lone was spokesman in Baghdad for the late U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

By Salim Lone

Once again, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is under pressure from the United States to have his organization play a pivotal role in helping resolve a crisis that shows no sign of abating. But once again, what is really being sought is U.N. support for the Bush administration's failing occupation policy, which is now being publicly challenged by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the leading and immensely powerful cleric of the Shiite majority in Iraq.

This new drive for involving the United Nations, which the Bush administration has repeatedly sidelined, is emblematic of the constant reversals that have marked U.S. policy as it continues to try, unfathomably, to exercise complete control over developments in a country it hardly understands. Vital though U.N. involvement is in healing the deep wounds inflicted by this continuing war on both Iraq and much of the Islamic world, what is infinitely more important is for the United States to have a coherent policy designed to hand over both political and military control to the Iraqis themselves as soon as possible.

That this major crisis has occurred with Sistani reflects yet again the astonishing isolation of Paul Bremer's team from Iraqi political and social realities. It is Sistani's implicit support for the American occupation that has been instrumental in restraining a Shiite revolt, but this support has from the beginning been explicitly predicated on speedy elections, which will end a century of marginalization of the Shiite majority in Iraq.

When the Nov. 15 agreement between the United States and the Iraqi Governing Council indicated that the handover to a new Iraqi body would be based on caucuses -- a novelty not only for Arabs but also most non-Iowans! -- Sistani immediately indicated that this was not acceptable and that elections were essential for the legitimacy of the new government.

Astonishingly, this powerful cleric's concern was in essence politely ignored. So he has now added an even tougher demand -- that any decision on asking the coalition forces to stay on in Iraq after the handover can only be taken by an elected body.

Hence the startling American return to the United Nations. Indeed, in the U.S. document for the June 30 handover agreed upon by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, no role was envisaged for the United Nations.

For all three parties now, the United Nations is considered essential to providing legitimacy for the new Iraqi government being formed. But there are real divisions here. Sistani wants the United Nations to certify that the elective process was genuinely democratic. Annan recently told the Iraqi Governing Council that he recognizes that "there may not be time to organize free, fair and credible elections" by June 30. But he also told the council that the process of forming the government must be "conducted in a way that is fully inclusive and transparent. Every segment of Iraqi society should feel represented in the nascent institutions of their country."

These will be tough bars for the coalition to meet, but in any event certification of the process' legitimacy would require U.N. monitoring it in all of Iraq. That in turn would require a highly political U.N. return to Iraq.

Annan, still deeply troubled by the devastating loss of his representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and 24 other U.N. staff members killed in July and August by Iraqi insurgents, and conscious as well of the growing perception in the Islamic world that the United Nations is essentially doing U.S. bidding, has explicitly laid down non-negotiable conditions for a return before sovereignty is restored to the country. A guarantee of security for staff is one, but no less important is the requirement that the responsibilities and authority that would be given the United Nations "be commensurate with the high risks that it continues to face."

The United Nations has an enormous reservoir of knowledge about Iraq and also in helping emergent states conduct free elections, write constitutions and create mechanisms for promoting and protecting human rights -- all urgent priorities for Iraq. The United States is wise to have recognized at least some of the U.N.'s utility, but there is much it needs to do to get Iraq right.

It is naïve, for example, to believe that this June 30 handover will inoculate the Bush administration's own electoral campaign against Iraqi turmoil, since there is little likelihood that that day will suddenly bring about a serious drop in the insurgent attacks; indeed, few Iraqis and Arabs will take that day to be the end of occupation since there will be tens of thousands of coalition troops there still. The United States should therefore keep open the option for postponing the handover for a month or two as it negotiates Sistani's demands.

More importantly, the dramatic political capital the United States won with Saddam Hussein's capture -- and with the startling renunciation of weapons of mass destruction by Libya and the agreements on Iraqi debt forgiveness by France, Germany and Libya -- should have been used to initiate changes in an occupation policy under severe attack from even mainstream U.S. political leaders. But distressingly, Saddam's capture chilled still further the debate as to how to terminate an occupation that has undermined this country's standing worldwide, as well as its own and numerous other nations' security.

With the insurgency now in its ninth month and showing little signs of being snuffed out, the only feasible solution to this crisis must at its core have a political rather a military dynamic. The insurgency has condemned most Iraqis to a life of unprecedented insecurity, as well as financial and social deprivations that far exceed the wrenching impact of 13 years of punitive sanctions. In this environment, even a small spark could bring chaos in Iraq, leave alone a major standoff with Ayatollah Sistani.
(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 1/20/04)