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High stakes for UN troubleshooter
By Robert McMahon

NEW YORK - Lakhdar Brahimi mediated an end to the Lebanese civil war, helped oversee the transition of post-apartheid South Africa, and presided over Afghanistan's initial move to democracy.

But the 70-year-old United Nation envoy now faces perhaps his toughest challenge in trying to broker an interim political settlement for Iraq amid escalating violence in the country.

In Fallujah, despite a ceasefire, sheiks from across Iraq were due to head for the troubled city on Wednesday to discuss the two-week standoff between US Marines and Iraqi fighters. On Tuesday night, US warplanes bombarded positions in the Sunni stronghold after a battle on Monday left one Marine dead and nine wounded. Tuesday was the deadline for insurgents to turn in their heavy weapons, but they have been granted more time. And plans to begin joint Marine-Iraqi police patrols in the city have been postponed.

Farther south, about 2,500 US troops are poised outside Najaf, where an uprising led by Shi'ite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr began three weeks ago. US helicopter gunships attacked fighters from Muqtada's Mahdi Army, on the outskirts of the city late on Monday. Seven Shi'ite militia were killed after opening fire on a US patrol, and a later clash killed 57 militiamen. US officials want to capture or kill Muqtada, who is wanted on murder charges in connection with the slaying of a rival cleric last year. Talks aimed at defusing the possibility of fighting between US troops and the Mahdi Army are proceeding.

It is into this cauldron that Brahimi will walk. He has a powerful ally in the US, with whom he worked closely while serving as UN envoy to both Afghanistan and Haiti. But Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, must also balance regional interests in seeking to establish a democratic state under a US-led military occupation.

Washington has handed Brahimi the task of drawing up the blueprint for Iraq's transitional authority, which is to assume power from the US-led coalition on July 1.

Top Bush administration officials reacted positively to Brahimi's initial proposal for a caretaker government. It calls for the disbanding of the current US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and replacing it with a government of limited powers supported by a consultative council until elections in January.

Brahimi was expected to provide a more detailed proposal to the UN Security Council on Wednesday.

Brahimi's plan
According to Brahimi, his plan envisages an interim Iraqi government being chosen by the end of May, despite the "extremely worrying" security situation in Falluja and elsewhere. "Though it will certainly not be easy, we do believe that it shall be possible to identify by the end of May a group of people respected and acceptable to Iraqis across the country, to form this caretaker government," Brahimi said.

The 15-nation council issued a statement welcoming Brahimi's "provisional ideas" for an interim Iraqi regime that would be made up of nonpartisan technocrats.

Brahimi warned about the "increase in violence up and down the country" and especially in the besieged city of Falluja. "It is extremely worrying," he said, that the US-led coalition knew "better than everyone else that the consequences of such bloodshed could be dramatic and long-lasting".

"Is it possible for the process to proceed under such circumstances? Will it be viable? Will it be credible?" Brahimi asked. "I put it to the [the Security Council] that there is no alternative but to find a way of making the process viable and credible."

Brahimi made clear that the new government would not have many powers until elections in January 2005. He said it should reach "crystal clear understandings" on sovereignty with the US before June 30.

"You want 150,000 soldiers to disappear at midnight on June 30? Those soldiers are going to be there," he said. US Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Monday that the interim Iraqi government would have to give up some of its sovereignty to allow a free hand to US-led armed forces.

Brahimi has proposed that the current US-selected Iraqi Governing Council be dissolved and an interim government made up of nonpartisan experts take its place until the elections. He said the UN would "help" select the government, along with the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council.

But Brahimi said it was important that members of the caretaker government shunned partisanship. "It is best if the members of the caretaker government, including the interim president, vice presidents and prime minister, were to choose not to stand for elections," he said.

He proposed organizing a national conference in July of at least 1,000 people to draw Iraqis together. This conference would elect a "consultative council" to provide advice to the government and receive reports from ministers.

The US is currently drawing up a Security Council resolution, expected to be circulated next month, that would approve an interim government.

Brahimi's influence  
At the end of his most recent trip to Iraq, Brahimi called for a revision of the Coalition Provisional Authority's (CPA) de-Ba'athification policy. He said the policy had removed many qualified technocrats from Iraqi society. On April 23, CPA chief L Paul Bremer announced an easing of the ban, saying it had been unjustly implemented.

The decision seemed to signal Brahimi's mounting influence, says Mustapha Tlili, who is a senior fellow on Islamic relations at the New York-based World Policy Institute. "Clearly, Bremer was expressing views that he did not express a few months ago, and I would assume it is under the influence of Lakhdar Brahimi, because he is a man of experience and reason, and he was saying the obvious," Tlili said.

Brahimi last weekend also warned the US against launching assaults on Najaf or Fallujah. He said that there is no military solution in such situations.

Brahimi, who has also served as a top official of the Arab League, has generated more controversy in recent comments about Israel. In separate interviews on April 21 and 24, Brahimi said Israeli policies in the Palestinian conflict are "poisoning" the Mideast region. He said his job of forming an Iraqi government was becoming complicated by Israeli policies and by US support for them.

Israel's UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, sent a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, objecting to Brahimi's comments. It said the envoy was making an unfair connection between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq. UN spokesman Fred Eckhard last week distanced the UN from Brahimi's statements. Annan said that it appears Brahimi was trying to reflect opinions from the Arab world.

Eckhard later told reporters: "[Brahimi] was criticizing Israeli policies and saying what he felt the impact of those policies was on the region and, in particular, on Iraq, which is, of course, his responsibility here at the United Nations now."

But Brahimi's unusually sharp comments leave the UN open to charges that it is continuing a perceived pattern of discrimination against Israel.

Hillel Neuer is director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization that is supportive of Israel. He told RFE/RL that Brahimi's comments raise concern about his fitness to broker the Iraqi political talks.

"It's a position of utmost importance for building democracy in the Middle East, and if the person in Brahimi's position believes that the greatest threat to Middle East peace is the sole democracy in the Middle East, then that suggests there is a problem with him being in this position," Neuer said.

But the World Policy Institute's Tlili, who is also a former UN official, told RFE/RL that Brahimi's comments should not detract from his crucial role in Iraq. He suggested the comments may have been primarily aimed at a Middle East audience. "I think [Brahimi] made his statement to make sure that people understood his position - yes, absolutely - because he has also to establish his credibility in the region," Tlili said.

Brahimi's comments come at a time of increasing criticism from supporters of Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi is a member of the Iraqi Governing Council who has had major influence with the US government. They label Brahimi as an Arab nationalist who is biased toward Sunni Muslims and thus incapable of acting as an honest broker with Iraq's majority Shi'ite leaders.

But Tlili, who says he has known Brahimi for 15 years, describes him as a strongly independent figure. Tlili said Brahimi is motivated in his current role by a sense of obligation to end the suffering of the Iraqi people and bring stability to the region.

(Additional reporting by Asia Times Online)

Copyright (c) 2004, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC 20036

Apr 29, 2004

When sovereignty does not mean security
(Apr 28, '04)

Horror and humiliation in Fallujah
(Apr 27, '04)

More power to the UN's man
(Apr 22, '04)


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