U.N. Should Have Limited Role in Iraq

U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (search) visited Iraq recently and soon will present proposals for smoothing the potentially jarring transition from occupation to national sovereignty in Iraq, which is scheduled for July 1.

Once his recommendations are made public, the Bush administration will need to decide what role and how much power to cede to the United Nations.

The U.N. pulled out of Iraq last October after two bombings of its headquarters killed more than 20 people, including U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello (search). While it is in the U.S. interest for the U.N. to be brought back into Iraq as a stabilizing presence, Washington should be wary of giving the U.N. a prominent political role in the country. Decision-making authority should continue to rest in the hands of the U.S.-British led Coalition Provisional Authority (search), and with the Iraqi Governing Council (search).

Greater U.N. involvement could encourage a greater level of international support for building a stable democracy in Iraq, as well as increased humanitarian assistance for the Iraqi people. U.N. diplomats also could help improve relations between the CPA and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (search), the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite Muslim (search) majority, who comprise at least 60 percent of Iraq's population of 25 million.

Sistani, fearful that his Shiite followers will be shortchanged by the U.S. plan to build a provisional government made up of representatives chosen by regional caucuses, has called for direct elections to be moved up from December 2005 under the U.S. plan to as soon as the CPA relinquishes power at the end of June. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on Feb. 19 stated that elections would be impossible to hold before July 1, as Sistani had wanted, but it is not yet clear what the U.N. will recommend.

Brahimi 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. The United States must work with Sistani if it hopes to build a stable Iraq. 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.

While the U.N. could play an important 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, in fact, would 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 undermine U.S. influence and bog down the whole process.

Nor should Iraq be allowed to develop into a glorified U.N. protectorate (search) on the model of Kosovo (search), 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. role should be limited to giving advice, not orders. It should help to train election officials, monitor the elections, and assure an accurate vote count. But the U.N. should not be allowed to determine the timing of elections. The CPA, 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, a poorly conceived scheme to inject democracy into Algeria's one-party political system led to the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (search), 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.

Nile Gardiner is Visiting Fellow in Anglo-American Security Policy, and James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Affairs, in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy institution.