UNITED NATIONS – Despite UN reservations about the legitimacy of upcoming polls and warnings about deteriorating security in military-occupied, war ravaged Iraq, the government is determined to hold elections in January, a senior official told the UN Security Council on Monday.
Brushing aside UN misgivings, Iraq’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Samir Sumaida’ie, told delegates: "We believe that we have a legal and political obligation to the people of Iraq, an obligation we intend to discharge, and to do so, to the extent possible, on time."
The envoy publicly dismissed warnings by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who expressed fears that the threatened "boycott" of the upcoming elections by certain sections of the Iraqi population would detract from the legitimacy of the polls, scheduled for Jan. 30.
"This underlines the urgent need to promote consensus on this important issue within the broader framework of the challenge of national reconciliation," Annan said in a 17-page report on Iraq, submitted to the Security Council on Monday.
Sumaida’ie challenged the United Nations on both counts. "Reading that, one might gain the impression that those who are calling for boycotting the elections are of similar weight to those who want to participate," he said. "That is far from being the case."
Sumaida’ie said there is no reason to believe that those calling for a boycott primarily groups from the majority Sunni Muslim population are a "sizable segment."
"Boycotts have failed in other countries transitioning to democracy," he said, pointing out that Iraq is unlikely to be an exception.
Also, if by the word "’consensus’ we mean ‘unanimity,’ then we are setting ourselves an impossible task," added the diplomat. "Having said that, we are fully aware of the need for national reconciliation, which will be pursued vigorously," he assured delegates.
"Given the opportunity, Iraqis will turn out in large numbers to participate in the first free elections of their lives," he predicted.
But despite that optimism, the envoy admitted the primary risk to the polls is not the boycotts but the insurgency that has gained strength since the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003. Sumaida’ie called it, "the campaign of violence and intimidation that is directed at the general population in order to thwart them" from voting.
U.S. and coalition forces have occupied Iraq since the invasion, but the insurgents’ aggressive and deadly campaign against them has resulted in the deaths of more than 1,200 U.S. soldiers. As many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians are said to have been killed by the fighting.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin also raised another important issue relating to the elections when he queried visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi about the genuineness of an election conducted by a U.S.-appointed government in a militarily occupied country.
"To be frank," Putin told Allawi, "I cannot imagine how elections can be organized when the country is under full occupation by foreign troops."
"I also do not see how you, on your own, can rebuild the situation in the country and keep it from collapsing," he added.
U.S. Ambassador John Danforth told the Security Council on Monday that the multinational force of more than 150,000 troops and support personnel from more than 30 countries "remained in place at the invitation of the Iraqi government."
Their presence in Iraq, he argued, is meant to contribute to security and stability and to assist Iraqis in building a democratic society.
Until Iraqi forces were fully trained and operational, and insurgents ceased their violent campaign, "security remains a serious concern," Danforth said.
He predicted the elections "would not be the end of process but, rather, a beginning and an important step in the development of a democratic nation."
Appealing to the United Nations the U.S. representative said, "additional United Nations support is essential to the future of Iraq, and especially to the success of next month’s elections."
But Annan has been reluctant to provide more than 20 UN personnel working as advisors to the election, primarily because of the insecurity in the country. That number could rise to over 50 in January.
The United Nations pulled its international staff from Iraq after the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad in August 2003, which claimed the lives of over 22 people, including Under-Secretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello, who headed the world body’s operation in the country.
Allawi has proposed that the voting could be staggered over 15-20 days so that adequate security measures could be focussed on particular areas, releasing pressure on U.S. and coalition forces, who are expected to safeguard polling booths throughout the country.
The Iraqi insurgents, who have warned the government against holding elections, have threatened to disrupt the polls with a wave of violence, including suicide bombings, which could deter many Iraqis from going to the polls.
In his address to the Security Council, the Iraqi envoy also challenged the United Nations because it "indirectly criticizes the use of force to dislodge terrorists in [the Iraqi city of] Fallujah" in November.
"Yet it [the United Nations] offers no alternative which had not already been tried for months, to no avail," Sumaida’ie said.
The UN report, he said, commends the interim government in Baghdad for its efforts in reaching out and engaging (insurgent) groups willing to talk.
"But despite all such efforts, we have witnessed increased audacity and brutality in targeting Iraqi children, women and men for wholesale massacre," the envoy added.
The interim government has concluded that those responsible for these atrocities "were not interested in negotiating, and those who were in dialogue with the government were incapable of delivering an end to violence."
Its strategy, therefore, is to deprive safe haven to any terrorist bent on destroying the transition process. "No responsible government can do anything else," Sumaida’ie added.