|July 23, 2004 -- SERGIO Vieira de Mello, the U.N. envoy killed by terrorists in Baghdad al most a year ago, was no cynic. But he recognized cynicism where he saw it. Soon before his tragic death, he described attempts at putting the United Nations at the center of things in Iraq as "a cynical ploy" by powers not prepared to give it meaningful support.
De Mello had been sent to Iraq with instructions to steer as clear of the Americans as possible. He was even ordered to refuse American military protection for himself and his staff. The Americans were lepers to be avoided at all cost.
So when the terrorists arrived to destroy the U.N. building and kill de Mello and dozens of his staff, there was no one to stop the tragedy.
A year later, the lessons of de Mello's fate remain unlearned.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has named a new envoy to Baghdad: Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, an experienced diplomat and Pakistan's ambassador to Washington. And once again the United Nations insists on going to Iraq not as a partner of the U.S.-led Coalition and the newly installed interim Iraqi government, but as what would amount to an official opposition to both.
It would be criminal to send Qazi and his staff to Baghdad where, deprived of adequate protection, they would be easy targets of the terrorists.
For the U.N. to treat the Coalition as lepers is bad politics, to say the least. The United States and its 33 partners account for some 60 percent of the U.N.'s total budget. The Coalition is made up of nations from all continents, including two of the five veto-holding members of the Security Council.
Yet the U.N. bureaucracy insists that no one associated with the Americans should have a role in protecting its Iraq mission.
It was to avoid the American "lepers" that the Security Council voted seven weeks ago to create a special international force to protect the U.N. mission in Iraq. So far, however, not a single country has offered to join. And the French, Germans and Russians (who had most opposed the use of U.S. troops for the purpose) are not even prepared to contribute money for such a force. Worse still, they are pressuring other countries not to offer troops.
Annan's office speaks of "difficulties to be sorted out." That is not good enough. What we have here is an attempt at sabotaging Iraq's progress toward free elections.
The U.N. mission in Iraq is to help convene a national conference this summer and pave the way for elections by next January at the latest. The clock is ticking and, with a maximum of 24 weeks to achieve its goals, the mission can't afford to waste a day.
Those who are delaying the start of the U.N. mission's work surely know that the most effective means of defeating the terrorists and stabilizing Iraq is the creation of a government chosen by the people in free and fair elections. Indeed, it is also the shortest route to ending the Coalition military presence.
Thus, those who are trying to sabotage the holding of elections are helping to prolong both the terrorist campaign and the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
According to plans worked out by U.N. experts, Ambassador Qazi's mission would need a protection force of 4,000 men. Is it too much to ask that France, Russia, Germany and China, who do not want the Americans and their allies around, to offer 1,000 men each?
And would it not be nice if Spain's new premier, Jose Luis Zapatero, proposed to send back his country's recently repatriated 1,200 troops to Iraq, this time as part of the U.N. protection force?
Several Arab countries have offered to join the proposed U.N. force. But the Iraqis don't want Arab troops on their soil: Most Arab states have despotic regimes and would lack credibility as protectors of a process of democratization in Iraq.
Ambassador Qazi's own country, Pakistan, is also offering troops. There are reports that President Pervez Musharraf is even prepared to provide all the 4,000 men needed. But Pakistan can't finance such an operation while Russia, China, Germany and France refuse to foot even part of the bill.
And those who refuse to pay also insist that the proposed force not be financed by the Americans, either. As a French spokesman put it the other day, the U.N. force should not be seen as "a U.S.-financed show."
All this leads us to a crucial question: Does Iraq really need the complications caused by the dirty power politics played at the United Nations?
Most Iraqis don't want the U.N. to meddle in their affairs. For them, the U.N. is associated with 13 years of sanctions that wrecked many lives while enriching Saddam Hussein and his Tikriti mafia. Almost daily revelations about the extent of corruption generated by the U.N.-led Oil-for-Food program only add to the mistrust of the Iraqi people.
A discredited U.N. has no legitimacy to bestow on anybody in Iraq. The only way for the U.N. to remake its image in Iraq is to accept the liberation of that country as a positive event and to distance itself from circles that suffer from nostalgia for Saddam's despotic regime.
When all is said and done, the U.S.-led Coalition bears primary responsibility for seeing Iraq through its transition from dictatorship to democracy. The U.N.'s self-inflicted paralysis and the Byzantine games played by the opponents of the liberation do not absolve the United States and its allies of that responsibility.
So far, the Coalition and the new Iraqi leadership have met all the deadlines they have fixed for themselves. A draft constitution was published at the time promised and the handover of power to an interim government completed on schedule. There is no reason why U.N. maneuverings should upset the established timetable for the holding of elections.
The interim Iraqi government should stick to the timetable and hold elections with or without the United Nations.
Those who still regret Iraq's liberation may well hoot and jeer at such elections, as they have done at every measure taken by the Coalition and its Iraqi allies so far. What matters, however, is what the Iraqi people think, and that can only be ascertained through elections.