BAGHDAD — The United Nations must bolster staff in Iraq and step up efforts to assist the fledgling government in preparing for landmark elections, Iraq's interim foreign minister said Wednesday.
"We regret to say U.N. participation in this process is not up to the standards that we hoped for," Hoshyar Zebari told reporters here.
To date, Zebari noted, only 25 U.N. workers are on the ground assisting in the process. In comparison, about 300 worked on the 1999 independence referendum in the "small island" of East Timor, Zebari said.
His comments amounted to the most pointed criticism from Iraqi officials about the U.N. efforts here. The small U.N. contingent is working with 300 Iraqi electoral officials to help organize elections in this violence-racked nation with no history of democracy. Iraqis are scheduled to go to the polls in January to elect a national assembly, which will be given the task of writing a permanent constitution.
Voter registration is scheduled to start next month, even though the U.S.-backed interim government lacks full control over vast stretches of the country, particularly in the Sunni Muslim heartland.
There was no immediate reaction from U.N. officials here, but Secretary-General Kofi Annan has consistently cited the threat of violence in Iraq and the need to ensure workers' safety.
The United Nations withdrew most of its staff after a truck bombing at its headquarters here last year killed 22 people, including its top envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Annan has since allowed a team to return to help with elections but limited the number of non-Iraqi staffers. U.N. experts have also been training Iraqi electoral workers abroad.
Annan said Tuesday in London that he had sought to form a U.N. brigade to guard U.N. workers and facilities so more staffers could be sent, but had received no offer of troops. As a result, the United Nations no longer objects to U.S. forces helping to guard U.N. staffers, Reuters reported Wednesday.
U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said the organization was in discussions with U.S. officials about dedicating a unit of the U.S.-led multinational forces to protecting U.N. perimeters. She did not elaborate.
About 130 troops from Fiji are expected to arrive next month to protect U.N. facilities within Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, Okabe said. But the ability of U.N. officials to travel beyond that zone remains in question.
Meanwhile, violence continued in the run-up to the elections.
At least 11 U.S. soldiers were wounded in two car bombings in Samarra, a city that U.S. and Iraqi forces have hailed as a success story since taking it from insurgents last month. An Iraqi child was killed and another civilian was wounded, the Army said.
In Fallouja, the U.S. launched four airstrikes against what it identified as safe houses in the network of Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi.
U.S. military officials denied witness reports that the strikes hit a teachers college for women and a house where a family of six was killed. They said "a known Zarqawi propagandist" was "passing false reports to the media." Fallouja leaders say Zarqawi isn't in the city.
At the U.S.-run Camp Bucca prison in southern Iraq, military officials said a 26-year-old security detainee had died Tuesday of an unspecified medical problem. An autopsy was planned.
Also Wednesday, two Egyptian mobile telephone engineers were released by kidnappers who abducted them from their Baghdad office last month, their employer said.
Times special correspondent Said Rifai in Baghdad contributed to this report, and wire services were used in compiling it.