U.S. and Britain propose U.N. role in Iraq

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States and Britain proposed on Wednesday a greatly expanded political role for the United Nations in Iraq to try to heal the sectarian divide that has riven the country since the U.S.-led invasion.

Firemen hose down a burning fuel truck at the site of a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad August 1, 2007. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen

A draft resolution circulated to the U.N. Security Council called for a major boost to the scope of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, or UNAMI, to accompany the extension of its mandate for a further year.

It was distributed as fresh turmoil struck the government in Baghdad. The main Sunni Arab political bloc quit the Shi’ite-led Cabinet on Wednesday in a dispute over security, and suicide bombers killed more than 70 people in the capital.

Since it was set up four years ago, UNAMI has focused mainly on helping with elections and monitoring human rights. The United Nations has operated cautiously in Iraq since its Baghdad office was blown up in 2003, killing 22 staff and visitors.

But U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad, formerly envoy to Iraq, has said he wants the world body more involved in internal reconciliation there. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also favours a bigger U.N. role.

The U.S.-British draft said UNAMI should from now on “advise, support and assist” Iraqis on “advancing an inclusive, national dialogue and political reconciliation” and reviewing and implementing the constitution.

The draft, which came as Washington and London are urging Iraq to take more responsibility to allow U.S. and British troops eventually to leave, said UNAMI should also promote dialogue between Iraq and its neighbours on border security, energy and refugees.

The March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein ended the domination of Iraq by its Sunni minority, propelling the long downtrodden Shi’ite majority into the political driving seat and also empowering the Kurds.

The country’s factions have struggled since then to govern the country together while brutal violence by militant groups has killed tens of thousands.

A Western diplomat who asked not to be identified said the draft resolution aimed to “give the U.N. more of a heavyweight mandate to get really involved in Iraqi politics.”

But, he conceded, “I don’t think anyone expects this to be the golden bullet, the panacea” for Iraq’s troubles.

The resolution would have UNAMI help Iraq to support the return of millions of refugees who have fled the violence, coordinate reconstruction programs and aid, and promote economic reform.

The Western diplomat said it would be up to the United Nations to decide if it needed to increase the approximately 300 staff UNAMI currently has, should the resolution pass. The mission’s current mandate expires on August 10.