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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.

Why the United Nations? A recent report from the Brookings Institution concludes that the organization is uniquely situated to broker a political compromise in Iraq because “it is the only body that approximates neutrality and can claim all the relevant state actors within its membership.” Only the United Nations can offer itself as a neutral convening ground for the contending factions and the neighbors, with their conflicting interests. But recent history provides good reason to worry that the United Nations will be drawn into the inferno of Iraq for all the wrong reasons, whether it be the American wish to transfer responsibility, and blame, for a hopeless cause or the ambition of a new secretary-general to prove his mettle, and that of his organization.

[snip]

The prospects are so daunting, and the likelihood of success so low, that one would never contemplate this act of diplomatic legerdemain were there any meaningful alternative. But there isn’t. The American military presence is not, itself, changing the key political facts; and an American withdrawal, by itself, will not suddenly bring the parties to their sense.

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