UN Says Its Absence in Iraq Could Jeopardize Fair Elections

UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations, which is supposed to prepare the groundwork for nationwide elections in Iraq next January, is unlikely to send an electoral team to supervise the polls unless its workers are heavily protected in the violence-prone country, according to a report released Monday.

But the absence of UN monitors could jeopardize the credibility of the polls, scheduled to take place before Jan. 31, according to one UN official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The United Nations was expected to ensure free and fair elections in Iraq," he said, "but any Iraqi elections without UN observers or monitors will be a hard sell."

In the report UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan insisted that the security and safety of UN staff will remain "the overarching guiding principle for all our activities [in Iraq]."

Although he did not single out the inherent dangers of supervising elections in a hostile environment, Annan was implicit in his reluctance to risk the lives of his employees to provide legitimacy to the elections, which many Iraqis were insisting be held prior to the official handover of power from the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority to the interim Iraqi government on June 30.

Soldiers from the United States, Britain and other nations continue to occupy Iraq.

After an assessment of the risks to UN personnel, Annan said the UN secretariat has concluded that "for the foreseeable future, the United Nations will remain a high-value, high-impact target for attack in Iraq."

"This requires that our role and presence be in symmetry with the risks involved and based on a careful assessment of what is feasible and advisable against the evolving reality on the ground," he added.

In the 12-page report the secretary-general stresses the need for a new security force – as spelled out in the latest Security Council resolution adopted in July – to protect the UN’s humanitarian workers and electoral team.

But plans to create the proposed UN protection force have been stalled because no country has so far volunteered troops, amid kidnappings of foreign workers by insurgents and growing new threats against potential troop contributors, who have been warned to keep out of Iraq.

Although the United Nations has been negotiating with several governments, including those of Pakistan, Nepal, Ukraine and Georgia, there have been no "firm commitments." "We haven’t had much success attracting governments to sign up," Annan told reporters last week.

U.S. Ambassador John Danforth said potential troop contributors were reluctant because, ironically, "the security people themselves would be vulnerable."

"I think that is something that is of great concern," he added.

A proposal by Saudi Arabia for an Islamic security force, consisting of troops from Muslim states outside the Gulf region, has also failed to generate support. The potential troop contributors to this force include Algeria, Morocco, Bangladesh, Tunisia and Indonesia.

The United Nations is expected to conduct voter registration in Iraq sometime in September. A UN electoral team is holding consultations on the need for an electoral authority, the definition of an electoral system, registration and the eligibility criteria of voters.

The UN Electoral Assistance Division has also proposed an independent electoral commission with nine commissioners, including a non-voting UN-appointed international member, and a non-voting chief electoral officer to head its administration.

The United Nations, which pulled out its entire international staff from Iraq after the August 2003 bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad, is now working out of Jordan and Kuwait.

The bombing claimed the lives of more than 20 UN staffers, including Undersecretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was Annan’s chief representative based in Baghdad.

"Until overall security conditions in Iraq improve significantly, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) will have to continue to operate primarily from the region to assist Iraqi people in the reconstruction of the country," Annan said in his report.

A wide range of projects is already under way in Iraq under UNAMI supervision and coordination. But all this is being done by remote control because UNAMI is located in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

In order to meet "the challenges of remote humanitarian coordination and information management" from Jordan and Kuwait, UNAMI has established a local UN website, which acts as a communications link between the United Nations and local staff in Iraq.

It also includes humanitarian and rehabilitation activity databases, a map center, Iraq media monitoring, document archiving and discussion forums.

At a conference in Madrid last October, donors pledged about $1 billion dollars to the International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq, of which $600 million dollars was for the UN Development Group and $400 million for the World Bank.

UN agencies, working out of Amman, have already programmed over $350 million in 27 separate development projects in Iraq, noted the report.

In the first six months of 2004 about $100 million worth of projects were implemented, mostly under the supervision of local Iraqi staff, who number about 1,000.

"The dedication and courage of UN Iraqi national staff and implementing partners in ensuring project implementation and delivery have been exemplary and will continue to sustain our assistance work," Annan added.

In spite of the "exceptionally challenging circumstances," he said, UNAMI is promoting contacts with Iraqi ministries to assist them to enhance national capacity, and is preparing to resume in-country activities "when circumstances permit" – a phrase Annan insisted be included in the Security Council resolution that called for a return of UN workers to Iraq.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen writes for Inter Press Service.