Dutch “Gut Check” on Iraq

I’m back now from Prague – and what a mess has arisen since I left last Tuesday, the 19th! That was the day that UN headquarters in Baghdad was attacked by a suicide truck-bomber, who caused the deaths of twenty-three personnel including UN Iraq envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

This is obviously a “gut check” moment. Things have not been going well there, and now there is this atrocity; do we stay or do we flee? Among other things, this warrants a check of the Dutch press to see what is being said there.

Let’s start with an article in today’s Telegraaf: VN neemt afscheid en begint opnieuw, or “The UN says good-bye and begins again.” So, although it lost its building, its leading official, and much of its personnel, the UN is determined to stay in Iraq – even if that has turned out to mean temporarily working out of tents and shipping containers. The British embassy will also stay in Iraq, even though there has been “credible information” about an upcoming attack – it has just been moved into the heavily-guarded headquarters of the American/British coalition forces. And the Red Cross will stay in Iraq, as well, but with reduced personnel: only about 50 Red Cross personnel will stay to attend to their duties in the entire country, assisted by around 700 native Iraqis. But even as the quantity of Western personnel shrinks, on the other side there is no shortage of shadowy organizations trying to take credit for the bombing. Among these have been in recent days “Mohammed’s Army” and the “Armed Guard of the Second Army of Mohammed.” Coalition forces are searching in particular for a certain Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammed, a former regional Baath party official, on the American list of 55 “most wanted,” and supposedly involved in planning the UN bombing.

Another article in today’s Parool examines the resulting political ramifications. The US is now looking for more help for Iraq, financial and military, from other nations. But the Americans are not willing to share their authority in Iraq, either with these other nations or with the UN collectively; as a result, they are running into problems finding willing donors. As the article reports, divisions on this question are assuming a familiar form: it’s the old “coalition of the unwilling,” which tried to resist the US-Britain push to war in the United Nations last spring (France, Germany, Russia, China) which now wants a more authoritative role given to the United Nations if there is to be any contribution of help. The deputy French ambassador to the UN, Michel Duclos, even speculated out loud whether we wouldn’t be having all this trouble in Iraq today if a truly international effort, called into being by the UN resolution of last spring that never was, had ultimately gone to war to remove Saddam.

In the meantime, former American ambassador to the UN (under the Clinton administration) Richard Holbrooke has suggested calling in NATO to Iraq, with the sole mission of protecting the UN there. This need seemingly becomes more urgent from the discovery that the UN bombing was largely an “inside job,” i.e. made possible with the connivance of some of the Iraqis who were supposed to be guarding the premises.

Ultimately, Trouw sounds the most inspiring note today with its editorial Irak niet in moeras laten zinken, or “Don’t let Iraq sink into the morass.” (Isn’t Dutch easy? All of you should just go directly to the Dutch on-line press and read it yourself!) The argument is predictable, but anyway nice to hear in these difficult times. The Americans and British are frustrated; the Iraqis are frustrated, even those most amiably-inclined toward the occupying forces. And the toll of allied dead continues to mount, not even counting spectacular strikes like the UN bombing.

What is necessary, says Trouw, is simply that the organizations that need to be in Iraq – the UN, the Red Cross, humanitarian relief organizations – receive the protection they need to be able to continue doing their jobs. That probably means the US and Britain giving in and getting the needed additional military help by acceding to a much greater role and authority for the UN. On the other hand, once that sort of UN resolution is finally passed, we’ll be able to see which states were sincerely in favor of it, and which were insisting on it merely to avoid helping in Iraq. A reconstructed and prosperous Iraq is now in everyone’s interest, Trouw advises; once the new UN resolution clears the way, everyone, every nation, should help out.

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