Kofi, are you ready?

A UN fact-finding mission has gone to Iraq, talked to various parties and listened to their views on how to get Iraq back on its feet. By now, the UN must have a good idea of which way to proceed and what the various players in Iraq want. The UN must by now be aware of the conflicting demands and the priorities of each of the concerned parties. The main aim of the UN mission was to ascertain the possibility of holding free general elections before alliance forces turn over power to the Iraqis. But the UN can do more than answer a simple question with a "yes" or a "no". It can tell us more about "why", "how", and "when". It can let the world know where it stands.

As I am writing these words, Lakhdar Labrahimi, head of the UN fact-finding mission, has not yet submitted his report to the UN secretary-general. Once he gets Labrahimi’s report, Kofi Annan will add his own recommendations and submit the report to the Security Council. It is clear that the fact-finding mission is of the view that general elections cannot be held with guarantees of fairness and neutrality before the date the Americans have set for turning power over to the Iraqis. Such a view makes sense, considering the continued bloodshed in Iraq. The US president is certainly relieved to hear it, for it takes some political pressure off his back, although it provides him with no clue as to how to extricate the US from the Iraqi debacle.

Before elections are held a solution must be found for the security issue. One finds it hard to believe that the UN can do nothing other than listen, powerlessly, to the views of the two main adversaries on the Iraqi scene; namely, the occupation forces and the resistance. Both have been blaming one another for the current turmoil, undermining the country’s prospects of holding effective and fair elections and moving on towards democracy.

A careful examination of the arguments of the US administration and Iraqi resistance shows that the difference between the two is less about goals than methods. There is a consensus that the occupation should end and that a new, democratic regime should emerge. But how? The US administration thinks of itself as the only qualified party to get the job done. It claims that it came to Iraq to dispose of dictatorial rule and will pull out as soon as democratic governance is established. The US believes that the world should approve of its action and help it whenever possible. Meanwhile, the resistance is adamant that the occupation is there to stay and that elections are impossible in a country subject to a foreign power. Occupation should end before elections are held, and since it is unlikely to disappear on its own, the only recourse is to stage armed resistance against occupation forces and all foreign and local collaborators.

Here is the conundrum: the current US administration sees Iraqi resistance as a terrorist threat that precludes the holding of free elections, and the resistance sees foreign occupation as a threat to the nation’s free will. Meanwhile, the Iraqi people are in dire straits, torn between an occupation that associates resistance with the remnants of the deposed regime and a resistance convinced that the Americans — for all their talk of democracy — want to pillage the country.

It is a conundrum the UN can resolve. The UN fact-finding mission can recommend an international peace-keeping force to replace the US-UK occupation forces in Iraq. Such a force is best formed from countries that are not permanent members of the UN Security Council, while being run and supervised by the entire Council. A recommendation along these lines would be a test to the two contending sides in Iraq.

Let’s have the entire Iraqi file, in both its political and military dimensions, placed in the hands of the UN and the Security Council. This would guarantee a clean political process from which a true democratic regime may emerge. Such an arrangement would be a litmus test of the true intentions of Iraq’s adversaries. Its rejection by the US administration would prove that the Americans want a puppet regime in Iraq. Its rejection by the resistance would validate the claim that resistance is the work of an old regime; of a minority trying to stifle the voice of an entire nation.

Critics of the current US administration say that it is not to be trusted. This administration has, for all its democracy rhetoric, lied to its own people and the world about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, claiming that Saddam was capable of using such weapons within 45 minutes to threaten his neighbours and the entire world. The administration, critics say, acting in cahoots with Israel, wants to subjugate the region, control its oil and dominate the world.

One cannot, however, disregard the fact that new circumstances are evolving; circumstances that the UN can use to advance the cause of world peace and regional stability. The current US administration is sensing that it is facing a real dilemma in Iraq and that it should find a way to extricate itself from the Iraqi quagmire. This provides the UN with a chance not to be missed. True, the current US administration will not give up easily. The US administration is certain to procrastinate and prevaricate, stonewall and posture, and generally do everything possible to gain time from UN involvement. Once the current administration wins the presidential elections, it would go back to its old ways. It may try to impose a military solution on the entire region. It may take joint action with Israel against Iran and Syria. If any of the above is true, this should only entice the UN to regain the initiative.

Were the UN fact-finding mission to come out and say that the replacement of occupation forces by a peace-keeping force is the only guarantee for holding true democratic elections in Iraq within a reasonable timeframe, this would open the door for the current — or any future — US administration, if well-intentioned, to emerge from the current impasse.

Resolving the security impasse in Iraq would require more than US action. The so far faceless resistance should come out into the open, reveal its identity, and disclose its political aims with clarity and sincerity. Random, en masse killings are not an enduring legacy. The resistance needs to make it clear that it accepts the replacement of the occupation forces with international peace-keepers and should also pledge allegiance to any government the nation freely elects. Were the resistance to do so, it would play a valuable part in preserving a future for Iraq, protecting it from fragmentation, and pulling the carpet from under the US occupation’s feet.

The UN is qualified. Will it now stand up and play its long-awaited role in the region and the world, restoring its stature and rehabilitating itself? This is what we will find out when Lakhdar Labrahimi submits his report.