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Why Iraq wants the UN's political mission to wind down

Why Iraq wants the UN's political mission to wind down
7 min read
23 May, 2024
Analysis: The call to wrap up the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq is part of Baghdad's efforts to change the country's international image.

Iraq increasingly wants to forge a new path that emphasises it is a normal member of the international community and can stand on its own feet. This requires that it shed the institutional hallmarks of the post-2003 period.

As part of that, Baghdad wants to end the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), which has provided the country with political, electoral, and development support for the last two decades.

In a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres dated April, but made public on 12 May, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani noted UNAMI’s positive contributions, but asserted that “after [twenty] years of democratic transition and overcoming great and varied challenges, the grounds for having a political mission in Iraq are no longer available”.

The letter said that Iraq is calling to “permanently” end UNAMI’s mandate on 31 December 2025, adding that the mission’s efforts should be “limited to completing its work (only) on the files of economic reform, service provision, sustainable development, climate change, and other development sectors” from now on.

What this leaves out is UNAMI’s critical political functions. The mission provides what is known in international relations as “good offices,” where a third country or a neutral institution offers a platform for bringing parties together to resolve disagreements.

UNAMI does this in a variety of ways, including helping to broker deals between Baghdad and Erbil, offering mediation between Kurdish parties, and facilitating dispute resolution between Iraq and neighbouring countries, most notably Kuwait.

The mission’s political mandate also includes a requirement that it report to the Security Council about developments in Iraq. The most recent such briefing took place on 16 May.

In light of Iraq’s demands, the question arises: what is the point of a political mission like UNAMI if it is unable to carry out a political role?

Changing Iraq's image

The call to wrap up UNAMI’s mission is part of a larger effort by Baghdad to change Iraq’s image and steer it into an era focused on ordinary, bilateral relations with other countries and international institutions.

Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, told The New Arab that “the veneer of sovereignty” is important to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.

Mansour said that Baghdad wants to show that “this is not the same Iraq that had a civil war, insurgencies, or all of these sort of conflicts that have represented the country for the last few years, but that this is a new chapter”.

This is also why Sudani’s government hopes to renegotiate the presence of international troops that are in Iraq as part of the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition.

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Moreover, Baghdad believes that having special UN oversight and officials that report to the Security Council about its often-embarrassing, domestic dynamics hamstrings its strategy.

Other countries, which of course have their own problems, are not subject to similar reporting requirements.

Last year, Baghdad requested a strategic review of UNAMI’s activities as a part of the one-year mandate extension. This resulted in a visit by former UN official Volker Perthes to Iraq in November. He met with a wide variety of actors across the country to assess the mission’s activities and its future.

In March, the results of the strategic review were released. Although it largely praised UNAMI’s work, it advised that the mission’s current mandate, including its political role, be extended for just two years before being concluded on 31 May 2026.

Sudani’s April letter was a response to the strategic review’s activities and conclusions. It objected to the fact that Perthes met with officials and figures outside of the Government of Iraq, including party officials, members of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and civil society, and demanded a shorter timeline for closing down UNAMI and that its activities be restricted to non-political functions.

Some members of the international community have expressed trepidation about ending the mission, albeit in diplomatic language. [Getty]

Mansour noted that there is a “big debate about UNAMI’s role” and that not everyone agrees with the government in Baghdad that the mission’s political activities are no longer needed.

Baghdad’s desire “to end the mission like this was a bit unexpected, because it basically killed everything,” a Kurdish foreign policy official speaking on background told The New Arab, saying that they had anticipated that the mission would conclude eventually.

“UNAMI’s good offices were always very helpful in facilitating dialogue,” they said. “Losing that channel, it's not helpful, to say the least.”

The end of UNAMI’s mandate will not mean that Iraq completely ends UN activities in the country.

As the April letter noted, Baghdad wants “to raise the level of cooperation with the United Nations and its specialised agencies,” including UNDP specifically, to “overcome economic, climate, and environmental challenges that face Iraq and the region”.

Therefore, it is clear that the purpose of ending UNAMI’s mandate is largely for political reasons, rather than practical ones.

“This is a symbolic effort from the government to present the country as a sovereign state that does not need a UN mission, that it does not need the UN Security Council having a briefing every quarter,” Mansour said.

Some members of the international community have expressed trepidation about ending the mission, albeit in diplomatic language.

“The US has strongly supported the mission’s work,” Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesperson, told a press conference on 13 May. “We are working with the Government of Iraq and fellow Security Council members to ensure an orderly and responsible wind-down that meets…the needs of the Iraqi people.”

The US is a particularly important actor because it is the penholder for Iraq issues on the Security Council, which means that it leads negotiations and drafting resolutions. This will be important in the coming weeks.

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Next steps

There are several possible scenarios in terms of how the mandate renewal process could play out in New York when the Security Council meets to discuss the issue at the end of May. Ultimately, the mission’s fate is dependent on these negotiations.

The Security Council could accept Iraq’s demands as expressed in Sudani’s letter and issue a mandate that ends on 31 December 2025 and does not include authorisation for continuing UNAMI’s political role.

Alternatively, it could establish a new mandate negotiated with Iraq that outlines a new set of core functions. It could also temporarily roll over the current mandate for a period of three or six months to give itself time to decide what to do next.

Less likely scenarios include the Security Council rejecting Iraq’s demands outright and continuing the mandate as it stands. At the Security Council briefing on 17 May, however, most country representatives recognised that UNAMI’s presence should end, even those who expressed support for its work.

Sudani's government hopes to renegotiate the presence of international troops that are in Iraq as part of the anti-Islamic State coalition. [Getty]

“Now is the time to transition to a new partnership between Iraq and the United Nations,” the UK’s representative said, while Switzerland emphasised that the transition be “responsible, orderly, and gradual”.

However, others strongly backed Iraq’s demands. For example, Russia’s representative told the meeting that Iraq’s continuing challenges “should not be used as an excuse for the Mission’s endless presence there”.

Baghdad could also change its mind and request the current mandate remain in place. This situation occurred earlier this month when Somalia appeared to step back from a demand to quickly terminate the UNSOM mission. However, this would cut across Iraq’s apparent motivations and is a far-fetched scenario.

Twenty-one years after the removal of Saddam Hussein and a decade on from the IS emergency, Iraq is not without major challenges. It is clear, however, that the UN’s political role in helping Iraq navigate those treacherous waters will soon end.

Only time will tell whether this will leave the country without a useful tool for ensuring stability and progress.

Winthrop Rodgers is a journalist and analyst based in Sulaymaniyah in Iraq's Kurdistan Region. He focuses on politics, human rights, and political economy.

Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @wrodgers2