Anthony Sampson: Brahimi: the UN can play only a limited role in exit strategy

18 May 2004

While Washington and London continue publicly to put much hope in the United Nations as a key part of their exit strategy for Iraq, the UN is making it clear that it can only play a very limited role. Lakdhar Brahimi, the UN representative in Baghdad, has now left no doubt about those limitations.

"I have been suggesting to everyone to stop speaking about a 'vital' role for the UN," he told me yesterday. "A role would be enough. The coalition must define it and give the UN the tools to do the job." And he emphasised: "I won't be involved myself."

Mr Brahimi made that clear to Tony Blair, with whom he talked two weeks ago, and he has made the same point to foreign ministers and heads of government in Europe, including President Jacques Chirac. But both Mr Blair and Mr Bush are continuing to talk as if the UN, led by Mr Brahimi, can take much of the burden of responsibility for Iraq's future.

Behind Mr Brahimi's unease lie the growing problems of assembling a new Iraqi council to take responsibility in Baghdad after 30 June, a task that will become more difficult after the assassination yesterday of Ezzedine Salim, the man who was president of the existing Governing Council.

Mr Brahimi has been determined to select a "technocratic" council, which would not be subject to powerful political pressures, like the existing council, which has been strongly influenced by the current American appointee Ahmed Chalabi.

Mr Chalabi has been widely discredited in Iraq, as an autocratic former exile in America with a shady past as the head of a collapsed bank in Jordan. He was thought to be responsible for much of the wrong information about Iraq before the Allies went to war.

And he has been blamed for many of the the post-war decisions in Baghdad, as the chief Iraqi adviser to the American pro-consul Paul Bremer, including the decision to purge all Baathists from all the responsible positions.

Mr Chalabi has now lost the confidence of Mr Bremer, who has reversed his decision about excluding all Baathists, but he retains the backing of powerful friends in Washington and is fighting hard to maintain his influence on the new council, from which Mr Brahimi has been determined to exclude him.

Mr Chalabi has been has also been currying favour with Shia by adopting a more religious style, and he has also been visiting Israel, to gain support from Ariel Sharon's government. Mr Sharon's spokesmen have been turning their guns on Mr Brahimi, particularly after he publicly stated that Israeli-Palestinian conflict was poisoning the Middle East.

At the same time, conservatives in Washington have been seeking to undermine the UN by attacking its handling of the oil for food programme before the Iraq war. Large sums of money were siphoned off that scheme by Saddam Hussein and his cronies. Despite warnings from the UN about the corruption, neither the US government nor the Security Council took effective action.

Senior UN officials are therefore very wary of agreeing to take further heavy responsibilities for Iraq's future, without a much more binding commitment from the US, the UK and other members.

They are concerned that Mr Bush and Mr Blair will use the UN as a convenient receptacle to take the blame for future disasters, while not allowing it the independence required to inspire the confidence of the Iraqi people. They further believe that Allied military forces will retain real control over security in Iraq.