Mutiny in Iraq
White House plans to turn Iraq into a model free-market economy are in equally rough shape, plagued by corruption scandals and the rage of Iraqis who have seen few benefits--either in services or jobs--from the reconstruction. Corporate trade shows have been canceled across Iraq, investors are relocating to Amman and Iraq's housing minister estimates that more than 1,500 foreign contractors have fled the country. Bechtel, meanwhile, admits that it can no longer operate "in the hot spots" (there are precious few cold ones), truck drivers are afraid to travel the roads with valuable goods and General Electric has suspended work on key power stations. The timing couldn't be worse: Summer heat is coming and demand for electricity is about to soar.
As this predictable (and predicted) disaster unfolds, many are turning to the United Nations for help: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on the UN to support his demand for direct elections back in January. More recently, he has called on the UN to refuse to ratify the despised interim constitution, which most Iraqis see as a US attempt to continue to control Iraq's future long after the June 30 "handover" by, among other measures, giving sweeping veto powers to the Kurds--the only remaining US ally. Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, before pulling out his troops, asked the UN to take over the mission from the United States. Even Muqtada al-Sadr, the "outlaw" Shiite cleric, is calling on the UN to prevent a bloodbath in Najaf. On April 18, Sadr's spokesman, Qais al-Khazaali, told Bulgarian television it is "in the interest of the whole world to send peacekeeping forces under the UN flag."
And what has been the UN's response? Worse than silence, it has sided with Washington on all of these critical questions, dashing hopes that it could provide a genuine alternative to the lawlessness and brutality of the US occupation. First it refused to back the call for direct elections, citing security concerns. In retrospect, supporting the call back then might have avoided much of the violence now engulfing the country. After all, the UN's response weakened the more moderate Sistani and strengthened Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters continued demanding direct elections and launched a vocal campaign against the US transition plan and the interim constitution. This is what prompted US chief envoy Paul Bremer to decide to take Sadr out, the provocation that sparked the Shiite uprising.
The UN has proved equally deaf to calls to replace the US military occupation with a peacekeeping operation. On the contrary, it has made it clear that it will only re-enter Iraq if it is the United States that guarantees the safety of its staff--seemingly oblivious to the fact that being surrounded by American bodyguards is the best way to make sure that the UN will be targeted. "We have an obligation since [the attack on UN headquarters] last summer to insist on clarity and on what is being asked of us," Edward Mortimer, a senior aide to Secretary General Kofi Annan, told the New York Times. "What are the risks? What kind of guarantees can you give us that we are not going to be blown up? And is the job important enough to justify the risk?"
Even in light of that horrific bombing, this is a stunning series of questions coming from a UN official. Do Iraqis have guarantees that they won't be blown up when they go to the market in Sadr City, when their children get on the school bus in Basra, when they send their injured to a hospital in Falluja? Is there a more important job for the future of global security than peacemaking in Iraq?
The UN's greatest betrayal of all comes in the way it is re-entering Iraq: not as an independent broker but as a glorified US subcontractor, the political arm of the continued US occupation. The post-June 30 caretaker government being set up by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will be subject to all the restraints on Iraqi sovereignty that sparked the current uprising in the first place. The United States will maintain full control over "security" in Iraq, including over Iraq's army. It will keep control over the reconstruction funds. And, worst of all, the caretaker government will be subject to the laws laid out in the interim constitution, including the clause that states that it must enforce the orders written by the US occupiers. The UN should be defending Iraq against this illegal attempt to undermine its independence. Instead it is disgracefully helping Washington to convince the world that a country under continued military occupation by a foreign power is actually sovereign.
Iraq badly needs the UN as a clear, independent voice in the region. The people are calling out for it, begging the international body to live up to its mandate as peacemaker and truth teller. And yet just when it is needed most, the UN is at its most compromised and cowardly.