When UN officials speak of Iraq these days, any impulse to gloat is quickly supplanted by frustration over the harsh realities of the situation in Iraq and sadness over the loss of 19 colleagues who died in a bombing in August.
"There may be a temptation to rub one's hands together and say, `Ha, ha! It's not working out the way [US President George W.] Bush thought -- we told you so!'" a senior UN administrator said last week. "But frankly, it's not good for anyone if the US is defeated in Iraq."
The Bush administration's decision last week to speed up the transfer of power to the Iraqis won evenhanded, public praise from Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had long championed a quicker restoration of Iraqi sovereignty.
But officials and diplomats here, while welcoming the policy change, warned privately against a rapid reduction of US military forces and said they feared that the US would dump Iraq into the hands of the UN.
"We in the international community are waiting for the tablets to come down from Washington," a foreign diplomat said nervously. "Who knows what sort of face-saving formula they're going to come up with."
Annan has never been a proponent of a UN administration for Iraq, as in East Timor or Kosovo. Instead, he has said that the UN should help shepherd the transition under the authority of a sovereign, broad-based interim government and alongside a multinational security force led by the US and endorsed by the Security Council.
But as the violence in Iraq has continued under the US occupation, the future participation of the UN in Iraq remains highly uncertain, officials say.
Annan, citing security threats, has pulled the last of his non-Iraqi workers from Baghdad and left only about 40 others in the northern part of the country, most of whom are affiliated with the oil-for-food program, under which former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's government was allowed to sell oil for civilian needs despite sanctions imposed at the time of the first Persian Gulf War.
The remaining foreign staff are due to leave the country when the program is transferred to the control of occupation forces on Nov. 21.
"Everything is on hold at the moment," Edward Mortimer, the UN director of communications, said in an interview. "Now it's gotten to the point where it really requires a make-or-break mission for us to send people in."
A team from the UN headquarters in New York and staff from Baghdad met last week in Nicosia, Cyprus, to discuss the future involvement of the world body in Iraq in a worsening security situation in which they and other aid workers have become targets.
The group reviewed how the UN could continue to contribute to the rebuilding of Iraq and ensure the safety of its workers at the same time, officials said. The results of the talks, which will be conveyed to Annan in a list of recommendations, are expected to have implications for UN missions in other conflict zones like Afghanistan, where a car bomb was detonated outside the organization's offices in the southern city of Kandahar on Tuesday.
While the UN has insisted that the withdrawal from Baghdad is only temporary, officials say there is no clear timetable for a return. The review of future activities in Iraq is "literally on a day-to-day basis," Shashi Tharoor, the undersecretary-general for communications and public information, said in an interview.
Fred Eckhard, a UN spokesman, said late last week that the policy discussions in Baghdad and Washington would not have an immediate effect on Annan's decision to revive UN operations in Iraq.
"Should there be an improvement in security as a result of a change of approach, I think he would be more willing to consider sending his people back in," Eckhard said.
What frames the analysis and perhaps even complicates it, officials said, is an Oct. 16 Security Council resolution that was intended to define the role of the UN in Iraq but left many here perplexed about its full meaning.
The resolution acknowledged that the UN had a "vital role" in Iraq, and endorsed a list, provided by Annan, of political and social services that the UN would provide. It also allowed Annan to provide those services as the security situation permitted.
But in the view of officials here, the document did not clarify the political relationship among the UN, the Iraqi people and the American-led occupation forces.
Annan has said that given the risk of working in Iraq, he would prefer to have UN employees work under a sovereign transitional government and not in a subordinate role to the occupying power, which, he believes, increases the danger for his staff.
"The Security Council has spoken on several occasions about the UN playing a central role, but it has never been clear what is meant by that," said Danilo Turk, assistant secretary-general for political affairs. UN officials hope that now, with the changes in the timetable for restoring Iraqi rule, their ambiguous mandate will become clearer.
Meanwhile, because the Oct. 16 resolution allows the UN to calibrate its involvement depending on the security threats, Annan has time to contemplate how much risk he is prepared to take under the mandate -- but only as long as the security situation remains severe, Security Council and UN officials agree.
"The council is mindful that security is a problem," a US State Department official said. "Which is not to say there won't be pressure put on the secretary-general as the situation improves."
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