August 10, 2007 / 6:17 AM / in 12 years

U.N. to expand political role in Iraq

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The Security Council voted on Friday to give the United Nations an expanded political role in Iraq, promoting reconciliation between its rival factions and dialogue with neighboring countries.

A U.S. soldier from the 2nd battalion, 32nd Field Artillery brigade takes position as shots were fired at the main road used by Iraqi pilgrims on their way to attend a Shi'ite religious ritual in Baghdad August 9, 2007. The United Nations will see its role in Iraq expanded to include seeking reconciliation between warring factions and dialogue with neighboring countries under a Security Council resolution planned for Friday. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The 15-nation council unanimously approved a U.S.-British resolution boosting the responsibilities of the four-year-old U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, or UNAMI, whose existing mandate expired on Friday.

U.S. and British officials have denied that their aim is to offload Iraq’s political problems onto the United Nations, then pull their forces out. But they want the U.N. to take a shot at peace, especially in recruiting help from neighboring nations.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has initiated a compact for Iraq with regional states that sets benchmarks for Baghdad in exchange for debt forgiveness and other aid.

As architect of the resolution, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the unanimous approval showed “a new page had been turned in regard to the Security Council’s role in Iraq,” a reference to the council’s refusal to approve the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

“This resolution underscores the widespread belief that what happens in Iraq has strategic implications not only for the region, but for the entire world,” he said.

Khalilzad said he hoped the world body would convene meetings among political factions “and propose bridging formulas,” as well as make sure Baghdad’s neighbors “assist the Iraqis in overcoming their difficulties.”

The United Nations has had a muted political role in Iraq for the past few years. The resolution gives it a larger mandate to lead efforts in uniting Iraq’s feuding factions.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari made clear in a letter to Ban, however, that any U.N. action needed “prior consent” of the Iraqi government.

Ban, in answer to questions, emphasized “promoting and encouraging political facilitation and dialogue among different factions and ethnic religious groups” as U.N. duties.

Pakistani Ashraf Qazi ends his term in Iraq as chief U.N. envoy later this year, but a replacement has not been named. Khalilzad said Staffan De Mistura, a Swedish national who last served in Lebanon for the world body, was “the likely person to be selected” but the decision was up to Ban.

Another candidate is Radu Onofrei, a former Romanian envoy to several Middle East nations, U.N. officials said.

SECURITY CONCERNS

Some major Iraqi players, like top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, were willing to talk to the United Nations, but not the United States or Britain, Khalilzad, formerly U.S. envoy to Baghdad, said earlier.

Coincidentally, the new mandate will come amid a fresh political crisis in Iraq, with nearly half the Cabinet having quit, or boycotting meetings.

The expanded role also is expected to require an increase in U.N. international staff in Baghdad, who currently number about 50 in the fortified Green Zone diplomatic compound.

Fresh in the minds of U.N. staff is the explosion that destroyed the U.N. office in Baghdad on August 19, 2003, and killed 22 people, including mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello. The blast led to a temporary withdrawal of U.N. staff.

Ban has asked for approval of $130 million to fortify the U.N. headquarters in the Green Zone. He is expected to ask for more funds to beef up the living quarters for U.N. staff, struck by a rocket two weeks ago, U.N. officials said.

While Ban endorsed the U.N. role expansion at a meeting last month with U.S. President George W. Bush, some U.N. rank-and-file staff are concerned that safety issues have not been fully addressed.

On Tuesday, the U.N. Staff Union called on Ban not to deploy any more people to Iraq and to withdraw those now there.

The resolution’s new mandate asks UNAMI to “advise, support and assist” Iraqis on “advancing their inclusive, political dialogue and national reconciliation,” reviewing their constitution, fixing internal boundaries and staging a census.

The mission would promote talks between Iraq and its neighbors on border security, energy and refugees, assist the return of millions who have fled the violence, coordinate reconstruction and aid, and help promote economic reform.

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