UNITED NATIONS - Despite a rash of suicide attacks and roadside bombings directed at U.S. troops and foreigners in Iraq, Secretary-General Kofi Annan is preparing to send a team of U.N. officials back to Baghdad to help Iraqis hold elections and form a new civilian government.
''We are all very conscious of the security conditions (in Iraq), and we would be very careful,'' Annan told reporters Friday, while admitting security will remain ''a constraint'' on the movements of his team.
He is hoping that both the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) ''will do their best to put the best available security team to protect the men and women I will be sending to assist them.''
Annan's decision to send a U.N. team is in response to a letter he received from the IGC seeking assistance to organize nationwide elections next year and to establish a legal framework. A similar letter was also sent to the U.N. chief by CPA head Ambassador Paul Bremer.
But the IGC letter, according to reports from Baghdad, was sent to Annan under heavy pressure from Bremer, who is planning to terminate operations Jun. 30, and wants to see a U.N. presence in Iraq as a political counterweight to the IGC.
''Bremer obviously does not want any IGC member to upset his plans,'' an African diplomat told IPS, speaking on condition of anonymity. ''So he forced them to send a letter seeking U.N. assistance.''
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special adviser on Iraq, told reporters Friday there are ''definitely'' two or three members in the IGC, ''who had doubts about how useful a U.N. role might be.'' But he said he is confident the overwhelming majority of the 25 IGC members want the United Nations to return to Iraq.
Asked if the Bremer-inspired IGC letter had dampened his enthusiasm to return to Baghdad, Brahimi said, ''I think the secretary-general has always said that we are not looking for a job, and we are not dying to go to Iraq”.
”If the United Nations is not needed, I think that is perfect from our point of view,'' he added.
Last month Brahimi lead a U.N. team to Iraq, which concluded that no elections were logistically feasible before Jun. 30. But he also ruled out a U.S. proposal to hold regional caucuses to elect an interim government in Baghdad.
The inadvertent use of the phrase ''dying to go to Iraq'' was not lost on the vice president of the U.N. Staff Union, Guy Candusso, who posed the question: ''Is Iraq better off now than before?'' But he left it unanswered.
Candusso said he understands the world body is only sending an assessment team to Iraq -- not returning the more than 1,000 international employees who were pulled out of the country after two deadly attacks on the U.N. compound last year, which claimed the lives of 22 staffers.
As security deteriorated in Iraq last year, the remaining international workers were temporarily relocated to Cyprus and Jordan.
Many of them work in U.N. humanitarian and development organizations, such as the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP). Their work is now being handled mostly by local employees, who number over a thousand.
A circular sent to U.N. divisional heads last month warned that no public reference should be made about the work of local staff lest their lives be jeopardized.
The warning came in the wake of deadly attacks on dozens of Iraqis who were accused of cooperating either with U.S. military forces or with non-governmental and humanitarian organizations still working inside Iraq.
The staff union, which represents the majority of the 14,000 U.N. employees worldwide, has continued to express strong reservations about the security environment in Iraq and the dangers it poses to international staff.
U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard told reporters Friday the security situation ''is still not good and it would be evaluated carefully before sending staff back''.
''Nonetheless, long-term planning for a return to Iraq continues, with special emphasis on security provisions,'' he added.
Eckhard also said he assumed the U.N. electoral team would have to travel outside the capital.
''The CPA had assured the United Nations that it would make all the necessary security arrangements for (the team's) activities'', Eckhard said, but he could not predict what those activities would be or where they might take place.
Told by a reporter that the ''vibes'' coming out of Iraq indicated that the United Nations was not welcome in Iraq, Brahimi said he did not subscribe to that view.
''A lot of Iraqis want the United Nations back,'' added Brahimi, who acknowledged newspaper reports that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a powerful Shia cleric, had objected to a U.N. role in Iraq.
''This is not correct,'' Brahimi said. ''The secretary-general has received a message directly from the ayatollah saying that he had nothing to do with these newspaper articles, and that, indeed, he wanted the United Nations to continue to play a role in Iraq''.
© Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service