Kofi Annan’s Regret – Iraq

The BBC World Service radio is leading today with remarks made by SG Kofi Annan in an interview with correspondent Lyse Doucet (who has occasionally been hired by the UN’s Department of Public Information to “chair” or “moderate” some of their organized round-table discussions).

The BBC story reports that Kofi Annan inched closer to calling the present situation in Iraq a “civil war”, and he expressed regret that the UN was unable to prevent the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The SG also told Lyse Doucet that life for the “average Iraqi” is harder now than it was under Saddam Hussein.

The AP (Associated Press) news agency has also picked the story up from the BBC, and writes that “Last week, when askedby reporters whether the fighting in Iraq could be considered a civil war, Annan sald ‘almost'”.   The AP story added that “In the BBC interview, Annan agreed when it was suggested that some Iraqis believe that life is worse now than it was under Saddam’s regime.”

The AP story reported that the SG “urged the international community to help rebuild the country, saying he was not sure Iraq could do it on its own.” 

Actually, this is not really a new story, and the play this story is getting indicates that this must otherwise be a slow news day. 

Even the attention being given to a reaction solicited from Iraq’s National Security Advisor Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie is being overplayed.  It appears that all Mr. al-Rubaie said was that he is shocked and stunned that Kofi Annan could suggest that Iraq was ever better under Saddam Hussein.”  Mr. al-Rubaie also sent a dart back to the UNSG, saying that “The UN, I believe, shied away from the responsibilities to the Iraqi people in 2003.” 

It is not entirely clear exactly what he meant by that — and whether or not he was unimpressed with the activities of the UN mission in Iraq, headed by Sergio Vieira De Mello, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who had taken a few month’s leave to go to Iraq, or whether he was disappointed that the UN pulled almost all its international staff out of Iraq after the car bombing of its relatively unprotected [they did not want to be too closely associated with the U.S.-led occupation forces] headquarters.  That bombing killed Mr. De Mello, who had been a friend of the SG, as well as Nadia Younes and a number of UN staff.

It did not take much journalistic sleuthing or delicatesse to coax these comments out of the SG. 

Kofi Annan said much the same in a press conference in Geneva on 21 November: “On the question of regret [looking back on his ten years in office], I still have to say it’s the war in Iraq, and that the debate and the discussions that took place in the [Security] Council could not have helped us stop the war.  I firmly believe that the war could have been avoided, and that the [arms] inspectors should have had a bit more time.  And then, of course, after that, on [19] August 2003, the tragic loss of my friends and colleagues who had gone there to help because we believe that regardless of the differences, we should try to get Iraq right.  And these wonderful colleagues and friends offered to go, only to be blown away, and that had a — it was really very hard on me and my colleagues.  It was very tough to digest and to accept.”  http://www.un.org/apps/sg/offthecuff.asp?nid=952

On its editors blog pages, the BBC reflects on the point at which “sectarian violence” becomes a civil war:  In April, the BBC notes, Iraq’s former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had already described the situation in his country as a civil war. 

The BBC editor’s blog posting, signed by Jon Williams, BBC world news editor, goes on to reflect: 

“Harvard professor Monica Toft suggests there are six objective criteria all modern civil wars share:
• the struggle for power over which group governs the country;
• at least two organised, armed, groups of combatants;
• that the “state” is formally involved in the fighting;
• the intensity of the conflict;
• that the two groups are each taking significant numbers of casualties;
• and that the fighting is within the boundaries of a single country. 

She believes Iraq meets all six.

But I wonder if describing it as such, really aids our understanding of what’s going on?

The fighting in Iraq defies simple categorisation. There are at least two other dimensions to the situation there.

In Anbar province, the violence in places like Fallujah and Ramadi is driven by the original insurgency against the US-led occupation. Anbar is a Sunni stronghold – the targets, by and large, are not Shia Muslims, but American servicemen and women.

Further south, a third battle emerges – fighting between rival Shia militias. The two most powerful are the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army, linked respectively to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Moqtada al-Sadr, the leaders of the two largest blocs in Iraq’s coalition government. These militia vie with each other for power, in tit-for-tat assassinations and drive-by shootings that have become a regular feature of life in places like Basra. It’s this battle that British troops in the south of Iraq often find themselves caught up in.

There is no single picture in Iraq – no single term can do justice to the complexity of what’s going on there.

For now, we’ve decided not to use the term civil war – not because the situation isn’t bad, nor life for those involved increasingly difficult. Others will continue to describe it as a “civil war” – we’ll continue to report their comments with attribution. But it’s precisely because things are critical, that we need to explain and provide the context – something, one simple phrase can never do.”       http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors

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