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Editorial: Focusing on priorities in Iraq

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-07-24

The appointment of Mr Ashraf Jehangir Qasi of Pakistan as the United Nations Secretary General's Special Representative to Iraq, should be welcomed by the international community not because the veteran diplomat is going to be able to stabilize the deteriorating security situation in that conflict-afflicted country. Mr Qasi's appointment is laudable not even because he may be able to apply his hard-won acumen - from stints as his country's envoy to Washington, India, China, Syria, among other places - to developing improved governance on the part of the new Iraqi government of Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The single most important reason why Mr Qasi's designation could be valuable lies in the possibility of jump-starting sustainable development in a Middle East nation with enormous economic potential.

While Mr Qasi's appointment signals the formal re-establishment of a UN proconsul in Baghdad, the circumstances of his entry are less than auspicious. For one, he succeeds the much liked Mr Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian diplomat who was killed last August when terrorists set off a bomb at the UN offices in Baghdad; some 21 others, mostly UN employees, also died with him. Mr Vieira de Mello was a charismatic figure, while Mr Qasi is more low-key. Personal style often matters in the conduct of public policy, especially in a sensitive, high-visibility situation such as Iraq; Mr Qasi must be seen to be publicly engaged in representing the UN at a time when all foreigners are highly vulnerable. But it is also essential that he not be perceived as a stool pigeon of Washington - even though his appointment was actively pushed by the Bush Administration in the hope that Pakistan would agree to send troops to bolster the American presence in Iraq. President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is under great pressure from his ally, US President George W. Bush, not only to send these troops but also accelerate Pakistan's attempts to flush out Al-Qaeda militants and, perhaps most of all in this American presidential election year, to capture the elusive Mr Osama bin Laden. But General Musharraf is equally under pressure from domestic constituents - including strident Islamic ones - not to accede to Washington's importuning. That is why Mr Qasi must be extra careful to conduct himself in a manner that doesn't promote partisan interests but exclusively promote the UN's objectives.

That means he needs to start organizing a national constitutional conference, as the Security Council has mandated. The mandate also states that he needs to strengthen the UN's "vital role in Iraq, including by providing humanitarian relief, promoting the economic reconstruction of and conditions for sustainable development in Iraq, and advancing efforts to restore and establish national and local institutions for representative government." It is the sustainable development part of the mandate that has been totally neglected in Iraq; the wealthy donor countries, perhaps understandably, have held back from major financial commitments until the political question of sovereignty was settled. Now that it has through the (at least) notional transfer of power from the US authorities to Iraqi ones, institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund recently indicated that they would start considering development programs in Iraq. A World Bank estimate suggests that it will take upwards of US$75 billion initially to rebuild Iraq's shattered infrastructure, create jobs, and ensure a modicum of social services and utilities for the country's 25 million people. Even as he plays diplomatic and political nursemaid in Baghdad, Ambassador Qasi must quickly begin to convince donors to start opening their wallets. While it may take many months to implement development programs because of the security situation, the international community needs to support him without reservations. Development, unlike diplomatic appointments, is a long-term assignment.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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