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U.N. Envoy to Put Iraqis First

Diplomat sees security as key to reconstruction. Rumsfeld says U.S. may not find banned arms.

May 28, 2003|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N.'s new special representative to Iraq said that his top priority when he arrives there next week is to help Iraqis take their country's destiny into their own hands -- but that it can't be done without law and order.

And as U.N. nuclear inspectors prepare to return to Iraq this weekend to investigate the disappearance of "tens of tons" of uranium from a nuclear research plant, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that Iraq may have destroyed chemical and biological weapons before the war.

Tensions have run high for months between the U.N. and Washington, initially over whether to invade Iraq to eliminate its suspected weapons of mass destruction and more recently on the role the U.N. might play in the rebuilding of the country. The charismatic new representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, is expected to smooth those ragged relations in the next crucial months. But Vieira de Mello made clear in his first news conference Tuesday that although the U.N. wants to work well with the U.S. and Britain, the world body can't do its job if the occupiers don't do their part.

"Security has not yet been fully restored," said Vieira de Mello, a 34-year U.N. veteran. "It is impossible to deal with the rest and to build what we want to build -- democratic institutions, a real culture of human rights and a political process making it possible for the Iraqis to govern themselves as soon as possible. It is impossible without security," he said at U.N. headquarters.

Vieira de Mello, a 55-year-old Brazilian, will be taking a four-month leave of absence from his post as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights to supervise the U.N.'s assistance in Iraq's reconstruction. He played a similar role in rebuilding postwar Kosovo and East Timor.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was reluctant to take the career diplomat away from his human rights job, even temporarily. But Vieira de Mello was also Washington's favorite for the post, U.N. officials say, and his selection is a symbolic and practical compromise.

"It was not an easy decision, but it also reflects the important challenge that we need to take on," said Annan, explaining why he would take an official away from one of the U.N.'s top jobs but only long enough for him to lay a foundation for the organization to build on in Iraq. "No one has more experience in this area than Sergio Vieira de Mello.... I need someone who can hit the ground running."

Last week, the Security Council voted 14-0 -- with one member, Syria, absent -- to lift sanctions on Iraq and to appoint a special representative to coordinate with the occupation authorities. The U.N.'s responsibilities will include humanitarian relief, legal and judicial reforms, human rights and helping with civilian police work, according to Resolution 1483.

Vieira de Mello said that although he would be in Iraq for only four months, the U.N. has been and will be assisting Iraq for years and that the world body would try to ensure that Iraqis really do have a voice in their new government.

The first task for Vieira de Mello, who is to arrive by Monday, is to meet with Iraqis who represent local groups, media and civil society. "Iraqi society is rich, and that richness has been suppressed brutally for the last 24 years," he said. "But they are there -- or are returning as we speak -- and they are my priority." His second priority is to work with the coalition members and the transitional authority.

As Vieira de Mello prepares to go to Iraq, seven inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency will return to the country over the weekend to check on a looted nuclear site, said spokesman Mark Gwozdecky.

"Many tens of tons of natural uranium and at least 2 tons of low enriched uranium" have disappeared from the Tuwaitha nuclear research center, one of Iraq's main nuclear complexes, he said.

The site had been monitored and the uranium sealed by the IAEA after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but the facility was left unprotected after the fall of the Iraqi government in April.

Rumsfeld said for the first time Tuesday that Iraq may have destroyed its banned weapons before the war started, a theory that U.S. intelligence officials have been exploring as they struggle to account for the United States' failure so far to find evidence of banned weapons. Asked why Iraq didn't use chemical or biological arms, Rumsfeld said the speed of the U.S. ground attack may have disrupted the regime's plans.

"It is also possible that they decided that they would destroy them prior to a conflict," he said at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in New York. "I don't know the answer, and I suspect we'll find out a lot more information as we go along and keep interrogating people."

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Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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