UNITED NATIONS — Iraq's interim foreign minister criticized the United Nations on Tuesday for standing on the sidelines in his nation's time of need, saying the world body had failed the Iraqi people in the past and must not fail them again.
"One year ago, this Security Council was divided between those who wanted to appease Saddam Hussein and those who wanted to hold him accountable," Hoshyar Zebari told the Security Council and Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
"The U.N. as an organization failed to help rescue the Iraqi people from a murderous tyranny that lasted over 35 years, and today we are unearthing thousands of victims in horrifying testament to that failure," he said. "The U.N. must not fail the Iraqi people again."
Annan, who opposed the U.S. decision to invade Iraq without the full backing of the Security Council, said it was inappropriate to "pin blame and point fingers."
"I think that the U.N. has done as much as it can for Iraq, and we are prepared to do more," he said. "So quite honestly, I don't think today is the time to hurl accusations and counteraccusations."
But the comments by Zebari, a member of the U.S.-appointed interim Iraqi government, highlighted the difficulties Annan faces in balancing the U.N.'s duty to help Iraq rebuild and his pledge to protect his staff after 22 U.N. employees were killed in an Aug. 19 bombing in Baghdad.
The secretary-general has withdrawn nearly all of the organization's international employees from Iraq, and thousands of local staff members have been told not to report to work if they feel endangered. He told the council Tuesday that the U.N. is "ready to play its full part in helping Iraqis resume control of their destiny" but that it would not base international staff in the country until the security situation improved.
Last week, Annan named veteran U.N. official Ross Mountain as acting envoy for Iraq to help with humanitarian efforts and eventually with organization of elections. But Mountain and his staff will be based in Cyprus and Jordan, making forays into Iraq, until the violence decreases.
"This is not, as some have concluded, a formula for the United Nations to stand aloof from the process," Annan told the council. "The stakes are too high for the international community just to watch from the sidelines."
Despite mounting pressure from Washington and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council for the U.N. to reestablish a significant presence in Iraq, diplomats say Annan prefers to wait until after the occupation ends for the U.N. to return in full force.
Although Annan has much to be concerned about in regard to security in Iraq, his requests for "clarity" about the U.N.'s potential role show that he may be willing to send a full team if the task is equal to the risk. That would mean, at the least, complete oversight of the political transition, not lesser tasks such as election monitoring, said a senior U.N. official who requested anonymity.
"He's essentially saying, given the risks, you've got to make it worth our while," said a Security Council diplomat.
Zebari traveled to New York to formally present the Security Council with the Governing Council's plans for Iraq's resumption of sovereignty, which is scheduled for July. The plans, though still under debate in Iraq, call for caucuses in each of the nation's 18 provinces to select representatives for an interim national assembly to take power when the occupation ends.
By the end of February, the Governing Council hopes to approve a measure providing a timetable for elections, the mandate of a transitional government and the principles for a new constitution.
In March, the council will seek to reach an agreement in principle to invite the occupying forces to keep troops in Iraq to provide security. But the agreement has to be ratified by the provisional assembly when it takes power, Zebari said.
The Governing Council seemed to be gaining an edge in the face of a challenge from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, spiritual leader of the Shiite Muslim majority, who had called for direct elections to choose the national assembly. Sistani said Saturday that he would agree to a U.N. fact-finding team appointed by Annan to determine whether it was possible to stage elections in time for the hand-over.
Annan delivered his answer to Sistani on Tuesday, telling the Security Council that holding open elections by June 30 was not realistic. But he reassured the ayatollah that his interests would be addressed in elections later.
"While there may not be time to organize free, fair and credible elections" for a provisional government, he said, "every segment of Iraqi society should feel represented in the nascent institutions of their country. None should feel excluded, pending the subsequent holding of free elections for a constituent assembly and parliament."