As war seems increasingly unavoidable, the UN is planning for the peace. People and resources are already being mobilised for immediate humanitarian relief work. The blueprint for longer-term reconstruction and administration of post-Saddam Iraq is beginning to taking shape. But until the green light comes from the Security Council, the planning has to take place in the dark.

Without a clear signal from above, the various limbs of the UN body politic are moving slowly and without co-ordination. UN agencies active in Iraq have been unable to deploy resources in anticipation of a humanitarian crisis. For the moment, most of the work is being done in neighbouring countries (see pages 10-12). No executive decisions on the role of the UN in Iraq can be made until the bombing starts. In the meantime, all eyes are fixed on the Security Council.

Centre-stage, as MEED goes to press, the drama revolves around the draft resolution authorising military intervention in Iraq. The governments of the five key players, the UK and US on one side, France, Russia and China on the other, have invested considerable political capital in their respective pro- and anti- war positions. The UK government continues to mediate between the two camps, warning that what is also at stake is the future of the UN as the prime arbiter in international affairs. If the US is unable to win its mandate for war, the danger is that ‘out-and-out unilateralists in Washington . will feel justified in arguing against ever going down the UN route or its like again,’ according to a close confidant of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But behind the scenes, the UN is preparing to do what it does best. It is a thankless task and one for which it rarely gets good press: the task of reconstruction. While the arguments in the Security Council focus on US warmongering, the quiet talk in the corridors of the UN is about peacekeeping. Confidential contingency plans are being drawn up for a post-war role in Iraq, which UN sources say goes well beyond the immediate humanitarian relief that will be required in the aftermath of conflict.

As soon as the bombing starts, say UN sources, a second resolution will be tabled authorising the intervention of the UN in Iraq. This will determine its role in co-ordinating relief efforts and, in the long-term, administering a reconstruction programme.

Meanwhile, preparations for a relief effort are being pursued in earnest. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), one of seven UN bodies involved in humanitarian relief work in and around Iraq (see box), has 185 staff preparing accommodation camps in Jordan and western Iran for an expected 20,000 Iraqi refugees.

The principal logistical problem is funding, with donors reluctant to dig into their pockets until there is a demonstrable crisis to address in Iraq. ‘We have appealed for about $60 million to preposition relief items in the region, but so far we have only received $16.6 million,’ says chief UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessner. ‘We have had to borrow from Peter to pay Paul. We are borrowing stocks from our supplies in the Balkans, and staff as well. We should have just about enough to keep things moving in the first month [after a conflict], but you just don’t go into the Tehran Carrefour or K-Mart and ask for 20,000 blankets.’

The UN relief workers making their way from the Balkans to the Middle East will remember the chaos that ensued following the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo. According to the Independent International Commission in Kosovo, which was convened by the UN after the conflict, before the intervention of a temporary UN administration dedicated to co-ordinating relief efforts ‘the lack of co-operation and competition between the military and the main humanitarian agencies, as well as with the numerous NGOs [non-governmental organisations] that rushed to the region to help, hindered the humanitarian effort.’

As in Kosovo, so in Iraq the task of co-ordinating relief efforts should fall to the UN. But, as in Kosovo, no official co-ordination can take place until a clear humanitarian crisis emerges. The implication is that once again the UN will arrive late on the scene. ‘The humanitarian question is entirely straightforward, the contingency planning is well under way and staff are already on their way out there. There is nothing magical or special about that side of the UN process,’ says a senior UN source. ‘The reconstruction question is a hell of a sight more difficult. At this point, without a specific mandate not only can key contingency decisions not be made, but they can’t even be openly talked about.’

However, scenarios for the temporary administration of post-conflict Iraq are now being discussed behind closed doors in the UN. Senior European staff have already indicated that they would not be prepared to work under an American military administration in Iraq. Key US military and economic allies in the Middle East have also raised strenuous objections to the idea of a US protectorate in Iraq. The preferred option, and one that is finding increasing favour with Washington, is the creation of a new UN body to act as a temporary administration in Iraq. Retired US army general Jay Garner is expected to co-ordinate reconstruction and humanitarian assistance after Saddam Hussein’s removal, but the White House is now indicating this position would be transferred to the UN as soon as possible.

UN officials say that contingency planning is hampered by the lack of any Security Council mandate, but that the institution is already preparing to divert its administrative resources to Iraq. ‘The talk at the higher levels now is of adopting the four-pillar model of Kosovo for Iraq,’ says a European official working with the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK – see page 4). ‘No-one has received any orders, but the US has been told we may be handing over the administration to the government in Pristina sooner rather than later as resources are going to be needed elsewhere.’

Washington has devoted little public energy to preparing for the aftermath of the conflict. Instead, it is now working on the assumption that it will not need to. ‘Until it knows whether it can secure a second resolution, the US has to keep its distance from the UN and give out the message that it is prepared to go it alone,’ says the UN source. ‘But the second the war happens, they are likely to hand over planning for the peace to the UN. I think we are going to see things happen unbelievably quickly.’

Although it may have failed to broker an agreement on a second resolution, the UK government has played a significant role in bringing the US within the UN orbit on the question of post-war planning. ‘If there is a substantial UN role in Iraq, it would give any post-war administration in Baghdad much greater legitimacy and mean that it’s not considered a US puppet administration. It would also be less costly to the US taxpayer,’ says a British diplomat based at the UN headquarters in New York. ‘It would be true to say the British effort in particular has been to bring the Americans on-side for a UN role in Iraq.’

Given the UK’s role as go-between, it is not surprising that the proposition was formalised at a meeting between UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 6 March. ‘At that meeting,’ said Straw. ‘I proposed that the UN should take the lead role in co-ordinating international efforts to rebuild Iraq, and that this should be underpinned by a clear UN mandate.’

Until that mandate arrives, the UN is required to keep its preparations in the dark. Formal post-war planning at this stage would contravene the terms of the Geneva Convention. ‘Beyond the immediate humanitarian effort, we have a smaller group which has been tasked to come up with some ideas on reconstruction,’ says Hua Jiang, spokesperson for the office of UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette, which has been put in charge of post-war contingency planning. ‘But these are just initial thoughts. Proper reconstruction planning needs a specific resolution to be passed by the Security Council.’

That mandate is expected to arrive the moment the fighting starts, and at that point the brainstorming begins in earnest. ‘There is a lot of conceptual thinking going on at the moment in New York, and various different ideas floating about. If and when the bombing starts, they will start thinking very, very seriously about the aftermath. The UN will no longer have to be in denial,’ says the UN source. ‘This is exactly what happened in Kosovo but here, where the bombing may take as little as a week or two, the planning will have to be even quicker.’

There are clear precedents for temporary UN intervention in Iraq. As of the end of last year, there were some 39,636 military personnel and civilian police serving in UN peacekeeping missions around the world, in addition to a further 10,929 civilian employees. The largest slices of the $2,630 million 2003 budget are allocated to Sierra Leone, where the mission is dominated by a 16,000-strong military force, and Kosovo, where the UN employs some 4,300 civilians to run the interim administration in Pristina.

‘A new UN role in Iraq would likely be based on past experience not just in Kosovo, but also in East Timor and Afghanistan, where you take the best of what the UN has had to offer in the past and make it into a package,’ says the British diplomat. ‘A new resolution may also adopt the Kosovo model, where you are backdating the mandate for military action.’

Even if the attempts of the US to secure a UN mandate for war are frustrated, it is possible it may still secure this retrospective legitimacy to smooth the path for the reconstruction effort. In the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict, the Independent International Commission concluded that ‘the NATO military action was illegal but legitimate’: illegal because it did not receive prior UN approval, but justified because in retrospect the commission felt that alternative diplomatic avenues had been exhausted.

Kosovo may have set the precedent for the planning process, but more importantly it provides the most likely template for the temporary administration and reconstruction of Iraq.

UNMIK rests on four administrative pillars. The first pillar, comprising the police and the justice system, and the second pillar, comprising the civil administration, are under the direct leadership of the UN. A third pillar covering democratisation and institution building, which co-ordinates local elections and the rehabilitation of the local media and political institutions, is the responsibility of the Organisation for Security & Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The fourth pillar, reconstruction and economic development, is primarily concerned with rehabilitating physical infrastructure and local industry, and is managed and funded by the European Union.

UN officials also point to the example of KFOR, the international security force sent into Kosovo by NATO, as a possible model for a temporary Iraqi security force. This force would be under UN auspices but likely include heavy representation of troops from Arab and neighbouring nations.

The Kosovo model has its limitations, not least because of the sheer size of Iraq and its population – nearly 15 times the size of the Serbian and Albanian populations of the former Yugoslav province. In many areas, however, the task of reconstruction in Iraq will be an easier one.

‘In the long term, its oil wealth means Iraq is not going to be a donor-dependent society like Kosovo,’ says an OSCE official based in Pristina. ‘More importantly, it has got a functioning administration, regardless of how many officials America feels it needs to pick off the top, and all the basic infrastructure like banking systems.’

International companies in regular contact with the Iraqi administration say that most of the negotiations for oil development contracts – nominally worth little more than IOUs until sanctions are lifted – have worked on the assumption that even a forced regime change will cause little disruption to the usual decision-making bodies in Baghdad.

‘We are making frequent visits to Baghdad and have kept in consultation with the people in the ministry,’ the chairman of Ireland’s Petrel Resources, John Teeling, told MEED last November. ‘The main thing is we know and can work with the people in the oil ministry. Even in the event of a regime change, most of them will still be there and we will be one of the first companies to hand.’

Despite the optimism of companies looking to take a stake in post-war Iraq, veterans of previous post-conflict reconstruction efforts may recall the words of the independent commission: ‘The world still remembers what KFOR and UNMIK found when they first moved into Kosovo. Empty streets. Shattered shops. No water. No work. Smoking ruins. Open murders in the streets. Dead bodies and piles of garbage. Not a newspaper to buy, not even a loaf of bread. Not a child in school. No fields safe to plough. Most of the livestock lost. No-one in charge.’

The challenge for the US is to ensure that the same scene does not greet the UN when it arrives in Baghdad. The challenge for the UN will be to take charge. n