The United Nations, after months of campaigning for a role in bringing democracy to Iraq is now hesitant about going there.
A delegation from the Washington-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S. occupying authority are meeting Annan on Monday. He wants to hear in detail what the U.N. would be expected to do in Iraq, and what sort of security arrangements could be made. At the same time, Annan is sending his own advance team to assess the situation on the ground and the practical aspects of going back.
The United Nations will have to look for a new headquarters. The old one was blown up in a terrorist suicide bombing on Aug. 10, killing the mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello and 22 staff and visitors, and the world body has been gone from the scene ever since.
The European diplomat, whose country belongs to President Bush's "Coalition of the Willing" -- America's supporters in the Iraq war -- said Washington was now anxious to involve the U.N. in the formation of an Iraqi government on June 30, hoping to win wider acceptance for the controversial way it plans to transfer power.
The U.N. for its part is anxious to play a role in Iraq but doesn't want to be perceived by Iraqis in particular and the Arab world in general as an extension of the U.S. occupation.
"It's a question of who wants who more," observed a senior European official. "They're both between a rock and a hard place. The United States wants the United Nations to have a role in the political process, but that role still needs to be defined and it still needs to be perceived as independent of Washington."
In pushing through its plans for a new government -- a key factor in its exit strategy -- Washington needs all the support it can get. The U.S. proposal to hold caucuses in Iraq's 18 provinces to choose the government is strongly opposed by leaders of the Shiite community that makes up over 60 percent of the population.
The Shiite's leading authority in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called instead for nation-wide direct elections. On Friday he threatened mass protests and strikes if the U.S. occupation administration does not agree to a government by direct suffrage. "We are going to see protests and strikes and perhaps a confrontation with the occupying forces if it insists on ...designing the country's politics for its own interests," declared Sheikh Abdel Mahdi al-Karbalai, Sistani's representative in the Shiite holy city of Kerbala, this week.
To drive home the point tens of thousands of Shiites joined a protest demonstration in the southern city of Basra to support Sistani's demands Thursday.
But the U.S. occupation authority argues that it is technically impossible to organize elections by June because no modalities exist for polling, and there are no electoral registers. "The issue is primarily whether in the current conditions in Iraq, and with no certainty about electoral rolls and things like that, elections will slow down the very important process of transferring sovereignty to the Iraqis," Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told al-Arabiya television Friday.
Annan is on record as agreeing with the U.S. assessment. He said as much in a letter to Abdel Aziz Hakim, a Shiite member of the Iraqi Governing Council earlier this year. But diplomatic sources said this should not be read as U.N. support for the current process.
But another concern about holding direct elections too soon is the total absence of what a U.N. official calls "a culture of minority protection." Elections would almost certainly result in a Shiite-dominated government. U.N. officials are concerned that if one ethnic group sweeps into office with a large majority, it will ignore the interests of other ethnic groups, particularly minority groups.
Washington and Annan have a key difference over timing. With U.S. elections rapidly approaching the Bush administration is in a hurry. The U.N., on the other hand, is not. On Thursday, Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. representative who was so successful in Afghanistan, assumed his new appointment as Annan's special adviser on Iraq.
The Iraqi delegation including Adnan Pachachi from the Governing Council and Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiar Zibari will also meet the Security Council Monday to discuss the Iraq situation. But European sources in New York said a final decision was unlikely until Annan's advance team returned from Baghdad, and Brahimi has had time to settle into his new assignment.