The U.S. Begs for UN Backing in Iraq

The U.S. is eager for the UN to return to Iraq to provide political cover for its occupation. The quagmire on the ground in Iraq plus recognition that the rest of the world, and most Iraqis themselves, reject Washington’s claim of legitimacy is the basis for the Bush administration reversing its earlier anti-UN positions to beg the international organization for help.
Kofi Annan’s decision to send a technical investigative team to Iraq is partly in response to mounting pressure from the U.S., but also a response to shifting sentiments among Iraqis, particularly the call from Ayatollah al-Sistani for a UN assessment of political conditions. While Annan’s announcement indicated he was responding to the request of the U.S. occupation authorities and its hand-picked “governing council” to determine whether elections could be held by Washington’s June 30th deadline, he left open the possibility of a broader definition of “what alternative arrangement would be acceptable” if not.

Why is the Bush administration so set on a June 30th “handover of power to the Iraqis”?

1) The deadline is driven far more by U.S. desperation – electoral and economic/corporate – than by any concern about “returning sovereignty” to Iraq. The Bush administration is lying about the deadline, claiming that it will lead to a “transfer of sovereignty” and the “end of U.S. occupation” in Iraq. A real “end to occupation” requires the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Transferring nominal authority from one U.S.-selected Iraqi agency to another U.S.-vetted Iraqi organization does not equal an end to occupation.

2) Bush needs to be able to claim “the occupation is over” and “troops are being withdrawn” as he enters summer campaigning for November. The reality will be the military occupation continuing, with a U.S.-backed “sovereign” government “requesting” that U.S. troops remain. The U.S. will withdraw 20,000-25,000 troops with great fanfare, ignoring and hoping the voters will forget about the 100,000 or so U.S. troops that will remain, and the likely continuation of significant casualties among U.S. troops. (Just today Rumsfeld authorized 30,000 additional troops for the Army.)

3) U.S. plans for massive privatization in Iraq have faltered because of a lack of potential buyers. Profiteers are concerned that without something resembling an official government in Iraq, U.S. efforts to sell of Iraqi assets will be recognized as illegal under international law and could be overturned when something closer to a truly legitimate and representative government takes over. So the U.S. has every interest in insuring that a transitional phase includes something that can be called a “sovereign Iraqi government,” but which in fact remains under U.S. control, to insure that the privatization plan goes ahead before a real end to the occupation.

Why did the Bush administration change their line on the UN?

1) The utter and all-too-public failure of the U.S. occupation (especially the continuing deaths of U.S. soldiers) in Iraq seems to have led to an internal power shift within the Bush administration, with the Pentagon ideologues tactically [and almost certainly temporarily] giving way to electorally-focused considerations. In the battle between Rumsfeld/Cheney and Karl Rove, Rumsfeld/Cheney seem to have blinked first.

2) There is no doubt that unilateralist, anti-UN sentiments continue to dominate the Bush White House. But hypocrisy aside, changes are afoot. One piece of evidence is Dick Cheney’s unexpected European foray. While arrogantly refusing to even hint at an apology for launching Washington’s war in the face of UN and broad international opposition, the fact that he left his undisclosed location at all to travel to European capitals urging greater international support for the U.S. in Iraq, even calling (once – not repeated) on the UN to respond to the request of the Iraqis, indicates a significant level of pressure on Cheney’s longstanding antagonism to multilateralism and the UN.

What did Kofi Annan agree to?

1) The secretary-general agreed to “send a technical mission to Iraq to establish whether elections for a transitional national assembly can be held before the transfer of sovereignty on 30 June, and if not, what alternative arrangement would be acceptable.”

2) The language is significant, since “alternative arrangements” could refer to a wide range of possible alternatives, essentially broadening the U.S.-defined mandate. Those alternatives could include not only the nature of the elections but also a challenge to the validity of the U.S.-imposed deadline itself. That is, the UN mission could conclude that elections are possible at a time beyond June 30th. An internal UN study in Iraq from last August determined that it would take six months to organize elections.

3) It is clear that Annan’s decision was partly based on the call from Iraqis beyond the U.S.-appointed Governing Council. Specifically, it is clear that al-Sistani’s call for the UN to determine the feasibility of elections played a part in his decision.

Why is Ayatollah Al-Sistani so committed to elections & why did he ask for UN help?

1) While al-Sistani represents a Shi’a current that does not call for complete clerical control of government, he is eager to realize the likely political potential inherent in the 60% Shi’a majority in Iraq.

2) The U.S.-proposed selection system (a longstanding Bush preference over elections…) for choosing an Iraqi parliament would not only privilege the U.S.-selected Iraqi Governing Council who would choose most of the assembly members, but would give a functional veto to the U.S. occupation officials themselves. (In each of the 18 regions the Coalition Provisional Authority – Bremer and company – would appoint five of the fifteen members. Since eleven votes would be needed to approve candidates, the CPA would be able to veto anyone they didn’t like.)

What is the danger to the United Nations if it refuses to return to Iraq under U.S. terms? If it agrees to U.S. terms?

1) If the UN completely rejects the U.S. proposal that it return to Iraq under the auspices of the U.S. occupation, it faces the possibility of escalating marginalization by the Bush administration, further threats to its independence, and the likelihood of being deemed “irrelevant” by the world’s sole super-power. Washington might make additional cuts in dues to the world organization and the humanitarian agencies, reduce its already insufficient political support, and increase its threats and punishments of UN member states who stand defiant.

2) If the UN agrees to return to Iraq under terms set by the U.S. occupation, the dangers are even higher. The global organization risks a serious loss of international credibility, and the danger of being deemed an agent or facilitator of occupation. Aside from the credibility factor itself, UN staff in Iraq would again face the likely possibility of physical attack, based on the opposition’s view that the UN was acting as an agent of an illegitimate occupation. Passed under extreme U.S. pressure, Security Council resolution 1483 arguably provides a kind of forced legality to the U.S. occupation of Iraq; it does not provide any legitimacy.

So, what do we call for?

1) We call for an end to U.S. occupation, and withdrawal of American troops. Because the U.S. invasion destroyed the governing capacity in Baghdad and undermined security for civilians throughout much of the country, the withdrawal of the U.S. forces should be followed by a temporary combined mandate for the United Nations, Arab League, and OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) to provide direct support for Iraq’s reclaiming of sovereignty. That would include election assistance, humanitarian and reconstruction aid (including control over all international funds, including those coming from the U.S. Congress, designated for Iraqi rebuilding), and peacekeeping/security deployment.

2) The UN investigation team should reject the artificial U.S.-imposed June 30th deadline, and broaden its mandate to examine what conditions would have to change before an election could be organized, assess what time frame would be required to accomplish those changes, and determine whether any election conducted under foreign military occupation could be free and fair.

What about the weapons of mass destruction that weren’t?

We were right. They lied.
No gloating – too many people have died.
More later.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.