...but the UN is staying. Almost 500 international personnel (and again that many Iraqis) work for the UN in Iraq, maintaining a key presence in cities like Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk. And as pretty much everyone acknowledges, what's most important for the country in the coming months is national dialogue, political reconciliation, and regional cooperation -- the very areas where the neutral brokers wearing the blue berets are taking the lead.
Somewhat ominously, though, the reasons why the UN is going to be so important in Iraq are also the reasons why its job might become even more difficult -- and dangerous. I know that today, June 30, is more symbolic than anything else, but with the gradual drawdown of U.S. forces, UN officers are losing their primary source of security. August 2003 showed us what can happen when UN outposts are not sufficiently protected, and, unfortunately, insurgents are not likely to shy away from targeting UN blue. With the departure of the most prominent targets -- U.S. military -- I worry that, in addition to terrorizing civilians, spoilers may increase their attacks on UN personnel.
Here's what the UN's outgoing Special Representative in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, had to say about today's Day of National Sovereignty:
While the Iraqi people and government is today celebrating the withdrawal of the MNF-I forces from Iraqi cities, towns and villages the SRSG said that “what has been achieved is a real source for congratulation. I know that the Government is fully aware of what remains to be done in providing better services to the people, greater inclusiveness at many levels, and improved security for all. But significant progress has been achieved on many fronts. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq has worked hard to contribute to this progress in a number of areas, and my colleagues who will remain behind in the country are totally dedicated to continuing these efforts.”
Passport's Annie Lowrey is "charmed" by my reading a legality-based counter-terrorism approach into "Scooby Doo," but she doesn't quite think it's up to snuff. In her view, maybe Velma and the monster-hunting gang are more akin to Hans Blix and his team searching for WMDs.
If anything, I think of the Scooby Doo Five as a decent analog for the United Nations weapons inspectors: mobile and peripatetic, spooked by the astral, often kicked out of the amusement park, much derided but really fairly decent at digging out the truth.
I guess the lesson here is that if you are a little too eager to dole out Scooby Snacks (or "yellowcake" and aluminum tubes) to an paranoid, excitable title character (or leader), then the rest of the team can't do its job, and the whole operation goes awry like a hungry Great Dane barreling into you at full tilt. And how's Rummy or Cheney as the incorrigibly pugnacious Scrappy Doo...?
In the past two months, the bodies of as many as 25 boys and men suspected of being gay have turned up in the huge Shiite enclave of Sadr City, the police and friends of the dead say. Most have been shot, some multiple times. Several have been found with the word “pervert” in Arabic on notes attached to their bodies, the police said.
“Three of my closest friends have been killed during the past two weeks alone,” said Basim, 23, a hairdresser. “They had been planning to go to a cafe away from Sadr City because we don’t feel safe here, but they killed them on the way. I had planned to go with them, but fortunately I didn’t.”
“Homosexuality is against the law,” said Lt. Muthana Shaad, at a police station in the Karada district, a neighborhood that has become popular with gay men. “And it’s disgusting.”
For the past four months, he said, officers have been engaged in a “campaign to clean up the streets and get the beggars and homosexuals off them.”
The UN's Special Representative in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, was understandably pleased with the relative safety and stability of Saturday's provincial elections. Even the turnout, though lower than expected, was "about average for provincial elections." But more disturbing than a decline in overall turnout to 51%, from 58% three years ago, was the fact that many Iraqis did not get to participate at all:
[Mistura] explained that the first-time inclusion of a registration process, to lessen fraud, had probably dampened participation, while only 60,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) had voted, despite measures to increase their numbers.
There are an estimated 2.7 million displaced persons within Iraq (not to mention more than two million more living as refugees in Syria and Jordan). And while it is assuredly much, much harder to organize voting for people displaced from their homes, it is nonetheless unsettling that only 60,000 -- under 3% -- were able to participate in the process to select a government that should be treating their concerns as paramount on its agenda.
(photo of a displaced Iraqi woman, from flickr user jamesdale10, under a Creative Commons license)
By most accounts, Iraq's provincial elections on Saturday went off smoothly, a lower-than-hoped-for turnout and scattered problems with voter lists more than counterbalanced by the conspicuous lack of violence. Predictably, some are taking this as a sign of vindication for U.S. policies like the "surge." Gateway Pundit conveys the scorn of italics, taking umbrage at the fact that, in praising the peaceful elections, President Obama neglected to mention the U.S. military specifically by name.
Security for the country's first ballot since 2005 was extremely tight, with Iraqi police and military deployed in force, and Mr Obama praised the technical assistance by the United Nations and other organisations to Iraq's electoral commission, which he said "performed professionally under difficult circumstances."
With all due respect to the U.S. military, Gateway Pundit's criticism misses the point. Others may debate the extent to which the "surge" provided Iraq's overall environment of improved security, but at their heart, these elections were a political triumph. And in alluding to the accomplishments of UN assistance -- the training, for example, of more than 60,000 electoral observers -- Obama is acknowledging what has often gone underappreciated: that the UN is filling a crucial role in providing much of the key political assistance that Iraq will need moving forward.
Conducting an election more or less peacefully, marred by only a few irregularities, may seem to set a low bar -- particularly with the extensive security preparation and the fact that elections in the country's most contentious city, Kirkuk, are (wisely) being indefinitely postponed -- but Saturday's experience must be contrasted with the elections of three years ago. Despite the higher turnout and the iconic image of the purple finger that emerged from those elections, they occurred in the midst of a bloodbath, with the Sunni insurgency roiling and the Sunni boycott called for by Moqtada al-Sadr skewing the balance of the Iraqi parliament and acceleratingthe ethnic factionalization of Iraqi politics. That said, we should be wary of turning the saga of Iraq's transformation into too neat a narrative. The story is not an arc, and these elections do not certify Iraq as a thriving democracy. The fact that so much assistance and security was needed in the first place should not be overlooked.
(image from flickr user thomas23 under a Creative Commons license)
Provincial elections in Iraq will take place on Saturday, but early voting has already begun for some groups. Check out this video to see some of the measures that UN and Iraqi officials have taken to prevent fraud (that purple ink is not just for style).
The Washington Postreports considerably less violence in the run-up to these elections than to that of their historic predecessor three years ago. But I don't care what the Post says; that ink looks more purple than blue to me.
At a ceremony honoring the 22 people who died in the horrific bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad five years, the head of the UN mission in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, pledged that the UN would continue to step up its work in the country.
"What we are doing at the moment is sending a signal that the U.N. is back. The U.N. is back to stay. The U.N. is back to have its footprint increasing, its activities increasing."
U.N. officials say there are about 350 international civilian and military staff members across the country, and that the number of civilian foreign staff members increased by 30 percent over the last year.
As the situation in Iraq shifts, so too is the direction of the UN's support.
[Officials] say their focus has shifted from bricks-and-mortar projects, such as building schools, to training and advising Iraqi ministries and officials.
With violence at four-year lows across Iraq, the United Nations is also venturing further into the tempestuous world of Iraqi politics.
The only way to consolidate the possible benefits of this decreased violence, of course, is through ramped up efforts at political reconciliation. Upcoming provincial elections -- likely to be delayed from October until early next year because of, among other factors, the difficulty of negotiating a referendum over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk -- are crucial to Iraq's political progress, and, as others have noted, the UN is in the best position to take the lead in this endeavor.
Spencer Ackerman has a thoughtful post on the UN's role in mediating the dispute over the status of Kirkuk, Mosul, and other territories contested by rival ethnic groups. A referendum on the status of some of these territories -- namely the oil-rich, majority Kurd city of Kirkuk -- has been delayed every year since 2003 because it is feared that the group which looses the referendum may resort to violence.
So, to forestall this violent shoe from dropping, the United Nations Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) has been quietly mediating talks between rival factions that would obviate the need for a referendum by finding some mutually agreed upon apportionment of territory. As Spencer notes, this is far from a perfect solution, but in a situation where all options are bad, this seems to be the least-worst.
this is exactly the sort of hard-case test for the U.N. that demonstrates its value. UNAMI's solution is bad one, but everyone else's is worse. The U.N. doesn't have much credibility in Iraq, but every other actor has less, when seen through the eyes of one-or-another stakeholder. Legitimacy is an extremely precious commodity. The virtue of an international body that can be really [...] annoying to this-or-that power at any given time is that it's the legitimacy-depository of last resort.
In a report for the Stanley Foundation last year, journalist James Traub came to a similar conclusion and argued for an expanded political role for the United Nations in Iraq as a whole.