UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wants the key players in Iraq to meet on Jan. 15 and decide exactly what role they want the UN to play as the country moves from US occupation to a democratically elected government.
Clearly frustrated at not getting specific answers from either the Iraqi Governing Council or the US-led coalition running the country, Annan said Thursday it was time for him to sit down with representatives from both bodies to pin down what they want from the UN.
"It has to be a three-way conversation and clarification," the secretary-general said. "Once we have that, I will make a judgment whether we can take on that role, and if so, how and where and under what circumstances."
UN officials indicated that the secretary-general's primary aim is getting specific answers from the US about what it wants from the UN before the coalition hands over power to an Iraqi provisional government by the end of June.
Speaking at a news conference, Annan said he was certain the governing council would attend the meeting at UN headquarters in New York, but preliminary consultations have just begun with the coalition.
Asked about "suspicions" that Paul Bremer, the top US administrator in Iraq, and the governing council don't want a meaningful role for the UN, Annan noted that the UN was never mentioned in last month's agreement between the governing council and the coalition setting out the timetable to general elections by the end of 2005.
"There have been some questions about whether this was an omission or was it a message," Annan said. "This is something we will have to clarify when we sit down."
Russia, France and Germany -- leading opponents of the US-led war against Iraq -- have pushed for the UN to take the primary political role in Iraq's transition, starting with assistance in drafting the basic law that will govern the process leading to adoption of a constitution and elections.
While the UN role between now and June 30 needs greater clarity, Annan said that once the provisional government takes power it will be "much more straightforward and clear" if they seek UN help in holding elections and drafting a constitution.
Another issue certain to be on the Jan. 15 agenda is the return of the UN's international staff, pulled out in October following two bombings at UN headquarters and a spate of attacks on humanitarian organizations. Annan considers the security situation in the country too dangerous for their return.
The US is pressing to get UN staff back in Iraq quickly, but UN officials indicate that Annan will likely stick to his current plan for the UN to operate out of Cyprus and Jordan.
Some officials don't expect UN staff to return until after the coalition hands over power to an Iraqi provisional government in June, because of fears the UN would again be linked with the US-British occupation in Iraqi eyes and again become a terrorist target.
Annan and senior UN officials have argued that the UN can do a lot from outside Iraq, with possible trips into the country. But Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Tuesday that UN staff need to be on the ground to play an effective role in the complex political process.
US Ambassador John Negroponte said he wasn't aware of an invitation to the coalition but reiterated that Washington wants the UN to play "a vital role" in Iraq.