The UN (Back) in Iraq

NPR’s All Things Considered, in a report entitled “U.N. Returns to Baghdad in Force,” provides a welcome look into the hard work undertaken by the hundreds of personnel — both foreign and domestic — serving the United Nations in Iraq. The “return” of the report’s title refers to the aftermath of the August 2003 suicide bombing — one of the first of the insurgency — that destroyed the UN mission’s base and killed 22 of its staff, including the mission’s head, veteran diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello (about whom Samantha Power has just published an insightful book). NPR correspondent Anne Garrels interviews the Secretary-General’s current Special Representative in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, and highlights some of the UN’s unheralded successes in Iraq.

These successes include: delaying the referendum on the city of Kirkuk, which, if conducted too early, would likely have only exacerbated volatile ethnic tensions; helping the Iraqi government design the structure with which to use its oil money (a luxury not enjoyed by most countries in which the UN operates); and preparing for the upcoming regional elections, which local Iraqis, largely dissatisfied with their regional governments, are eagerly awaiting.In discussions of Iraq, the UN’s triumphs often fall to the wayside during the protracted skirmishes of American politics: endless debates over troop withdrawal, the effects of “the surge,” or the cost of the U.S. occupation. With the UN mandate set to expire at the end of the year, though, its role in Iraq — operating with relatively few personnel, on a budget dwarfed by that of U.S. forces, and enduring persistently dangerous security conditions — deserves considered appreciation.

The NPR report affirms one of the central benefits of the UN’s presence in Iraq: its neutrality. de Mistura is confident that many Iraqis welcome the UN because they “feel that [it is] neutral and impartial” and “can provide them with advice in areas they are not familiar with or competent [in].” At the same time, he recognizes that this sentiment is not universal among Iraqis, and acknowledges the sobering effect of the 2003 bombing, after which, he says, UN personnel arrived at the stark conclusion that their blue flag of impartiality would not necessarily protect them from the determinedly violent segments of the population.

Nonetheless, the UN has achieved many tangible successes in Iraq. Its neutrality is perhaps even more important, though, as UN staff, even if still constrained by appalling levels of violence, are unhindered by bias or partisan rancor back home, and can work alongside Iraqis to help rebuild their war-shattered country.