UNITED NATIONS -- Secretary General Kofi Annan discussed the possible UN role in Iraq's political transition and security during talks yesterday with American and British officials, part of preparations for a crucial Jan. 19 meeting that will help determine the world body's mandate if it sends international staff back into the country.
Annan met with US Ambassador John Negroponte and British Ambassador Emyr Jones-Parry to get a better idea of what all sides expect from the Jan. 19 discussions, which he sought with Iraq's Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority to clarify the world body's role in postwar Iraq.
After the hourlong meeting, Negroponte repeated statements by the administration of President Bush that the United Nations has an important role to play in Iraq, and said they had discussed providing security to United Nations employees if they return to the country.
The secretary general pulled UN international staff out of Iraq after a deadly suicide attack on its Baghdad headquarters in August, and has said it's still not safe enough to return.
"It's a question of first of all knowing what duties and tasks have to be carried out, what kinds of numbers and people are being discussed," Negroponte said. "It makes quite a bit of difference if you're talking about dozens of people versus hundreds of people."
"We want the UN to play a vital role and we welcome the UN back into Iraq as soon as it could possibly do so," Negroponte said.
A UN official said on condition of anonymity Thursday that Annan has concrete ideas about the role he wants the United Nations to play in Iraq, but he has not made those ideas public. He is seeking security assurances and hopes to learn how much Washington is willing to allow the United Nations to do in Iraq in coming months.
After yesterday's meeting, UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said Annan, Negroponte and Jones-Parry had "covered lots of ground" but made no decisions before the Jan. 19 meeting.
He had said earlier in the day that Annan was in a "listening mode" yesterday.
"Everyone wants to see a successful transition to sovereignty in Iraq and everyone has their thinking caps on as to the best way to do that," Eckhard said. "We are maintaining an open mind while we listen to whatever the Brits and Americans put forward to us and we're also listening to what the Iraqis are saying."
The key is whether UN employees will be safe. The August bombing killed 22 UN employees and visitors, including the top UN envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
"The scope for a UN role is very much limited by the security factor. That's a fact of life," Eckhard said.
A Nov. 15 agreement between the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Authority calls for a legislature elected through caucuses in Iraq's 18 provinces and a handover of power by June 30. It does not define what role the United Nations could play.
Annan has been pressured by Abdel-Aziz Hakim, the Governing Council's president for December, to get involved in Iraq immediately.
Hakim supports Ayatollah Ali Husseini Sistani, Iraq's most powerful cleric, who wants direct elections, and not caucuses, for the transitional assembly. Hakim asked Annan in a Dec. 28 letter if the United Nations would oversee that process.