New York Times
November 13, 2004
UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 12 - Secretary General Kofi Annan's reluctance to commit staff members to Iraq in large numbers and a series of comments he has made about the war have strained relations with the Bush administration and left many Americans bewildered, according to both supporters and critics of the United Nations.
Mr. Annan withdrew international staff members from Iraq in October 2003 in the wake of attacks on relief workers and the bombing of the United Nations' Baghdad headquarters, which killed 22 people, including the mission chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Although the United Nations has been assigned the task of setting up elections scheduled for January, Mr. Annan has declined to send more than a handful of electoral workers to Iraq, citing the lack of security forces to protect them.
"The Iraqis and the Americans are completely frustrated," said a senior American official at the United Nations, reporting views he said he heard in the White House this week. "The secretary general is still recommending many thousands of peacekeepers in Sierra Leone and the Congo, and yet there are seven election workers in Iraq. That tells the whole story."
This official said that warnings were resurfacing at the White House that the United Nations was risking becoming irrelevant and that such comments were now being combined with a dismissive attitude toward Mr. Annan himself.
"We're beyond anger," the official said. "We won re-election, Kofi's term is up in '06 and though we have been asking him to define the U.N. role in Iraq, he is thumbing his nose at us."
William H. Luers, president of the United Nations Association of the United States, acknowledged concern among the organization's backers. "I think a lot of Americans who are very sympathetic to the U.N. are confused with this last phase," he said.
"Most Americans don't really take into account the rule-of-law aspects of international behavior," Mr. Luers said. "We generally think what we do is right and in a certain sense we set the rules. Nonetheless, the world doesn't see it that way, and I think Kofi is talking to that world. I think he almost has to be where he is, but it's a tough time for him among Americans."
In an interview Thursday night at his office overlooking the East River, Mr. Annan said he was distressed by the criticism.
"I have tried to be as helpful as possible, and I have stated at every opportunity that the stabilization of Iraq is everyone's responsibility," Mr. Annan said. "I have argued that regardless of one's position on the war, we must all come together to stabilize Iraq."
At issue are three recent actions by Mr. Annan. In September, he suggested in a BBC interview that the war in Iraq was "illegal." He barred lawyers with the United Nations war crimes tribunal from taking part in training sessions last month for Iraqi judges and prosecutors who will be trying Saddam Hussein and other former Iraqi leaders. And two weeks ago he sent a letter to the United States, British and Iraqi governments warning that a military assault on Falluja could further alienate Iraqis and undermine the elections scheduled for January.
"All of these actions were unhelpful," said Rich Williamson, who was a deputy United States ambassador to the United Nations from 2001 to 2003. "Iraq is a place where the U.N. could show that it can make a valuable and important contribution, but it is just hurting itself in not helping the Iraqi people and sitting on the sidelines."
Further jeopardizing Mr. Annan's image in American eyes are the allegations of corruption and a cover-up in the scandal-ridden oil-for-food program and the intense anger on Capitol Hill at the refusal of the independent investigation headed by Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, to share documents with the various Congressional committees conducting their own inquiries.
Officials in Mr. Annan's office say they fear a return to the mood of the 1980's when the United States, the organization's single biggest donor, reacted to Congressional displeasure with the United Nations by withholding payments.
In the interview, Mr. Annan denied that he was being obstructionist over Iraq, and he contended that the United Nations had been instrumental in selecting the interim Iraqi government and had succeeded in training 6,000 election registrars and opening up hundreds of registration places across the country, despite a low number of United Nations staff members now in Baghdad.
Asked if he was under pressure from countries opposed to the war not to cooperate with the Americans, he replied: "Actually, it's the other way around. I am the one who is always telling governments, including those that did not support the war, that the civilization of Iraq is everyone's business because we cannot have a chaotic Iraq in the middle of that region."
He said he had had little success in persuading any countries to contribute troops to a 4,000-member force called for in a Security Council resolution in June that was intended to protect the United Nations and allow it to increase its presence in Iraq. Asked why countries were resisting, he said, "I think they are concerned about the security situation, and they probably have their own public opinion and parliaments to convince."
He said he was concerned about the damage to the United Nations' reputation caused by the oil-for-food scandal and accusations that he was being passive in reacting to it. But he said his interest in protecting the integrity of the Volcker investigation and his obligation to maintain its independence prevented him from taking any individual action.
As for the requests from Congressional committees for records and documents, he said, "It's a bit like having a case in court in New York, and you have several other courts from other places that want to deal with the same case."
Speaking of his directive preventing United Nations judicial officials from helping to create the Iraqi courts, he noted that there was no Security Council mandate for such assistance and cited the organization's formal opposition to judicial systems that include the death penalty. "As you know," he said, "quite a few members of this organization won't even extradite someone to a country where the death penalty exists."
With the United States pressuring him to increase the United Nations presence in Iraq and with the unions representing the world body's 60,000 employees around the globe demanding that the organization leave Iraq all together, Mr. Annan said he had to find creative ways to maintain a balance. "At least we are there, and many others are not there," he said.
"Without being boastful," he said, "I think that except for these activities of ours, we would not have moved as far as we have, whether it was the establishment of an interim Iraqi government or the preparation for the elections. I think our role has been essential, and not one that is played by an organization that is irrelevant."