The UN's most senior humanitarian official in Iraq warned yesterday that US attempts to rebuild the country were overly dominated by "ideology" and risked triggering a violent backlash.
Ramiro Lopes da Silva said the sudden decision last week to demobilize 400,000 Iraqi soldiers without any re-employment program could generate a "low-intensity conflict" in the countryside.
"The reconstruction of minds is as important. We cannot force through an ideological process too much," said Mr Lopes da Silva, 54, a Portuguese UN official who served in Angola and Afghanistan before becoming the humanitarian coordinator in Iraq last year.
In unusually frank comments, he said the first three weeks after the collapse of the Iraqi regime were characterized by "talk about grandiose plans and a lot of promises but there were no decisions".
Since Jay Garner, the retired general appointed to lead postwar Iraq, was replaced this month by Paul Bremer, a former ambassador, decisions have begun to be made.
But Mr Lopes da Silva echoed the concerns of international aid agencies and the Iraqi people when he said poor security remained the overwhelming problem holding back the restoration of power, water and health services as well as the political process. "The situation is improving but law and order is still the key," he said.
It is clear many UN officials are frustrated to have been excluded from the running of postwar Iraq. Most of the decisions taken at the US authority's headquarters in Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace in Baghdad are made by Pentagon appointees who report to Donald Rumsfeld, the US defense secretary.
Arab specialists from the state department have been largely excluded and while British diplomats have had some influence on decision-making, the UN has hardly been consulted.
Mr Lopes da Silva said the UN "disagreed" with some of the decisions made by the US-led authority in Baghdad.
He was surprised the decision to disband the Iraqi military had not been accompanied by an attempt to reintegrate soldiers into society.
"The way the decision was taken leaves them in a vacuum," he said. "Our concern is that if there is nothing for them out there soon this will be a potential source of additional destabilization."
Even US generals admitted at the time they feared the decision could worsen the lawlessness and looting. Mr Lopes da Silva said the demobilization, along with tightened security in the capital, could force looters into the less well-guarded countryside.
"What you are potentially going to create is more banditry and a low-intensity conflict in the rural areas," he said. "These edicts are seen very much just as ideological statements."
Mr Lopes da Silva also questioned the authority's de-Ba'athification program, under which up to 30,000 Ba'ath party officials are automatically excluded from office. "Many bureaucrats who have important experience that would help the new government were only Ba'ath party members on paper," he said.
In another step against the Ba'ath party yesterday, US military officials fired the police chief for west Baghdad against the advice of several American soldiers. Abdul Razak al-Abbassi, who for the past three weeks has helped bring hundreds of officers back to work, was dismissed because he had been a senior member of the Ba'ath party under Saddam.
On Sunday, the UN started its own re-employment program which it hopes will provide 250,000 jobs in the next six months. Officials will now see if it can be expanded to include some Iraqi soldiers.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003