Back to Iraq

THE arrival of a two-man UN security advance team in Baghdad on Friday is just the kind of news that traumatised Iraqis most want to hear these days.

For weeks now, they have been watching with trepidation the standoff between the US-backed Iraqi Governing Council and the country’s leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. The latter wants direct elections to be held before the scheduled July 1 handover of sovereignty. But the Americans say conditions in Iraq are not conducible to such an exercise. However, the involvement of the United Nations in the debate has raised hopes of a compromise, subject to Sistani’s acceptance of the UN’s verdict as final. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s idea apparently is first to assess the situation on the ground and then to plan for the safety and security of UN personnel. If he gives the go-ahead for an eventual return of UN international staff to assist with the political transition, then the first task obviously will be to determine if holding free and fair elections is feasible under the circumstances. There is a strong likelihood of insurgents launching a fresh wave of terror to scare the UN away, in a repeat of the August 19 attack on the organisation’s Baghdad office, which killed 21 employees, including Annan’s top envoy. According to surveys, most Iraqis are dubious about the Coalition troops’ ability to bring order to the chaos and make their lives better. At the same time, they are terrified of what would become of their country were the foreign forces to leave in the near future. Clearly, then, there is a crucial role for the UN in Iraq no matter how high the stakes. The UN has been criticised for failing hapless Iraqis too many times in the past. It has got a chance to redeem itself and should not pass it up.

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