A Limited Role for the United Nations in Post-War Iraq

Report Middle East

A Limited Role for the United Nations in Post-War Iraq

January 22, 2004 4 min read

The return of the United Nations to Iraq will be an important test of the world body's relevance in the post-Saddam era. Today the U.N. looks more like a glorified debating society than a serious global body designed to confront the world's growing threats and problems. An effective job by the U.N. in assisting with the electoral process in Iraq will help to restore its reputation on the international stage.


A Potential Role for the U.N.

The United Nations is considering sending a team of experts to Iraq to assist with U.S. plans for the transfer of power in Baghdad. The decision follows a meeting in New York on January 19 between U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and the U.S. Administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer. The U.N. withdrew most of its personnel from Iraq after the August 19 suicide bomb attack on its headquarters in Baghdad, which left 23 people dead, including the U.N.'s chief envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The decision to involve the United Nations in the development of a democracy in Iraq is an astute move by the Bush Administration, provided it does not result in a dilution of U.S. authority on the ground. U.N. involvement will encourage a greater level of international support for U.S. plans for the future of Iraq, as well as increased humanitarian assistance for the Iraqi people.

Critically, a U.N. presence should also help smooth relations between the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the spiritual leader of the Shiite Muslim majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The past week has seen several large-scale demonstrations by Shiites in Iraq, who comprise at least 60 percent of Iraq's population of 25 million. The protests, which have been largely peaceful, have called for direct elections to be held in the country as soon as the CPA relinquishes power at the end of June 2004. Direct elections currently are scheduled to be held in December 2005, after a provisional government has prepared the ground for genuine democracy.

The United Nations could play a valuable role acting as an intermediary between Ambassador Paul Bremer, the leader of the CPA, and the Ayatollah, who has called for U.N. involvement in the electoral process. It will be in the interests of the United States to work closely with Sistani, rather than alienate him. Sistani is a pragmatic leader who long opposed Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and now is increasingly being challenged by radical Shiite leaders who are hostile to the United States.


Maintaining U.S. Authority in Iraq

While it is in U.S. interests for the U.N. to be brought back into Iraq as a stabilizing force, Washington should be wary of giving the U.N. a prominent political or military role in the country. Decision-making authority should continue to rest in the hands of the U.S.-British led CPA, and with the Iraqi Governing Council.

While the U.N. could play an important hands-on role in helping to build the democratic process in Iraq, it should not be entrusted with deciding how to shape that process. Adding the U.N. to the policy mix would only add another layer of confusion and delay, as rival Iraqi factions would seek to maximize their bargaining leverage by playing the U.N. against the U.S. This would not only undermine U.S. influence but would bog down the whole process. It will be difficult enough to turn over sovereignty to Iraqis by July 1, as called for by the "Agreement on Political Process" signed on November 15th by Ambassador Bremer and the Iraq Governing Council. If the U.N. becomes an active participant in the ongoing negotiations, then progress could be slowed further and it will become almost impossible to meet the July 1 deadline.

Nor should Iraq be allowed to develop into a glorified U.N. protectorate on the model of Kosovo, which would be a recipe for disaster. Security in the country should also continue to be maintained by U.S., British, and other Allied forces currently stationed in Iraq, and not by United Nations peacekeepers. The U.N.'s peacekeeping record, from the Balkans to West Africa, has been poor.

The U.N. should also not be given a role in deciding the fate of Saddam Hussein. The former dictator should be tried by an Iraqi court, and not by the International Criminal Court.[1]


Building Democracy Requires Patience

The U.N. can also play a valuable role in helping to train election officials, monitor the elections, and assure an accurate vote count. But the U.N. role should be limited to providing technical advice and training, not determining the timing of elections. The United States, in consultation with the Iraq Governing Council, already has established a timetable for free elections. Washington must make sure that the U.N. does not jeopardize Iraq's political stability by rushing prematurely to elections before Iraq is ready for them.

An overly ambitious rapid democratic transformation could bring anti-democratic forces to power and destabilize Iraq. Premature elections would favor Islamic radical parties whose concept of democracy is "one man, one vote, one time." In 1992, an overly ambitious scheme to inject democracy into Algeria's one-party political system led to the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front, plunging Algeria into a bloody civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives. A premature rush to democracy in Iraq could lead to a similar disaster.

Democracy should be phased in incrementally: first local and municipal elections, then provincial elections, and finally national elections. In the meantime, the United States should gradually transfer power to an inclusive, broad-based Iraqi interim administration that will prepare the ground for future national elections.

Dr. Nile Gardiner is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Center for International Trade and Economics, and James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at the Heritage Foundation.


[1] For further background on the issue see Paul Rosenzweig, Saddam Hussein's Trial, Heritage Foundation WebMemo #384, December 15, 2003. http://www.heritage.org/Research/MiddleEast/wm384.cfm



James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow