Iraq dominated the United Nations agenda throughout 2003. The year began with heated debates in the Security Council over ways to ensure Iraq’s disarmament, including weapons of mass destruction, and ended with intensive discussions on what role the United Nations might play in the reconstruction of the country and the political transition. In August, the United Nations itself became the target of a vicious attack in Baghdad.During the year, two United Nations operations, the Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission (UNIKOM) and the Oil-for-Food Programme, closed down, and a new operation, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), was established. The Organization was continuously involved in humanitarian relief efforts across the country.
Weapons inspections and military action
United Nations inspections of Iraqi weapons programmes2 had resumed in November 2002, but 2003 saw the Security Council divided on how to ensure that Iraq fulfilled its international obligations as specified by a series of Security Council resolutions. The United States, the United Kingdom and Spain presented Iraq with a 17 March deadline to disarm completely. Three days later, a US-UK headed coalition undertook military action, leading to the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In May, the Security Council recognized the occupying powers under unified command by the United States and United Kingdom as the “Authority” in Iraq, pending the establishment of an internationally recognized government.
United Nations assistance
In spite of significant dissension among its members over the use of force, the Security Council managed to find unanimity regarding the major humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people during and after military action. In March, the Council modified the United Nations humanitarian relief programme, known as the Oil-for-Food Programme, and authorized it to facilitate delivery of food and medical supplies. The United Nations humanitarian agencies also brought emergency assistance. On the basis of extensive contingency planning, they had been well-prepared for a possible humanitarian catastrophe. Since international staff had been withdrawn by the Secretary-General in the face of the pending military action, humanitarian assistance—including the delivery of food, water and health care—was carried out by the United Nations’ Iraqi staff. In resolution 1483 of 22 May, the Security Council lifted international sanctions and provided a legal basis for United Nations work in Iraq under occupation. The resolution requested the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General who would assist the Iraqi people, in coordination with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), in a wide range of areas, including humanitarian relief, reconstruction, infrastructure rehabilitation, legal and judicial reforms, human rights and return of refugees. The Special Representative was also to work with the CPA and the Iraqi people to restore and establish local and national institutions for representative governance.
In order to implement the tasks outlined in resolution 1483, the Security Council, by its resolution 1500 of 14 August, established UNAMI with an initial mandate of 12 months. Days later, on 19 August, the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was the target of a terrorist attack that resulted in 22 deaths, with more than 150 injured. Fifteen of the dead were United Nations staff. Among them was the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
The Secretary-General withdrew most United Nations international personnel based in Baghdad, maintaining only a small team to provide essential humanitarian assistance. He also appointed an independent panel of experts to review safety measures taken prior to 19 August and make recommendations to improve the security system for United Nations personnel in Iraq and similar high–risk environments.
The United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was attacked again on 22 September, and the Baghdad headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross was also targeted. As a result, the Secretary-General further reduced the numbers of international staff in Iraq. These attacks dealt a severe blow to efforts to assist Iraq’s return to normalcy, but the United Nations local Iraqi staff once again continued to carry out assistance activities.
With the start of the military action in Iraq, the operations of UNIKOM, and the mission’s underlying purpose, were affected. In mid-March, UNIKOM ceased monitoring the demilitarised zone between Iraq and Kuwait and began providing support for humanitarian work. On 6 October, after some 12 years of operations, UNIKOM’s mandate ended.
The Way Forward for the United Nations
As 2003 drew to a close, the overall security situation had shown little sign of improvement. In October, while debating the further internationalization of the United States-led coalition force, the Council authorized a multinational force under unified command to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq. Council resolution 1511 specifically asked the force to contribute to the security of UNAMI and the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), a body established in July by the CPA and composed of Iraqi representatives. The establishment of this body was welcomed by the Security Council as a major step towards the formation of a sovereign government. The Security Council asked the Governing Council to provide a timetable and programme for drafting a new constitution and holding democratic elections under that constitution.
In December, the Secretary-General designated a senior United Nations relief official, Ross Mountain, as his acting Special Representative for Iraq and Chief of UNAMI. Operating temporarily from Cyprus, Jordan and Kuwait, a core UNAMI team was to focus initially on planning for eventual deployment back to Iraq and on coordinating United Nations relief, recovery and reconstruction activities as well as pursuing dialogue with key States in the region.
A significant development in Iraq’s political transition process was the conclusion, on 15 November, of an agreement between the Iraqi Governing Council and the CPA, which provided a timetable for drafting a new constitution and for elections3. Although the agreement made no specific mention of the United Nations role, the Governing Council expressed its desire for the Organization to play an active part in its implementation. As of December 2003, that role had not been defined.
2 Inspections were carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). Established in 1999 to replace the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), UNMOVIC was mandated to carry out on-site inspections of Iraq's biological, chemical and missile capabilities, supervise the destruction of weapons of mass destruction and manufacturing facilities, and verify Iraq’s compliance with its obligations not to reacquire weapons prohibited by the Security Council.
3 Key benchmarks provided in the agreement included the formation of a transitional national assembly by 31 March 2004 and the establishment of a sovereign transitional government of Iraq by 30 June 2004, in view of the holding of elections for a new government in 2005.