January 18, 2020
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Our Man In Baghdad

Prakash Shah's appointment as UN envoy to Iraq is seen as a move to undercut US influence

Our Man In Baghdad

IT'S an astute move in a game of global chess. The naming of Prakash Shah as UN secretary general KofiAnnan's personal envoy to Baghdad is seen by diplomatic sources as yet another decisive move by Annan to wrest the initiative on the Iraq issue away from the US. "Kofi Annan wanted his own man on the ground in Baghdad. He wanted someone who was skilled, but also in whom he could trust. In Prakash Shah, Kofi has found that person," observes a senior UN official.

Western sources have a different take on the Shah appointment. They see it as a move to undercut the influence of the US on the Iraqi imbroglio. Says a Western diplomat: "UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission) is their baby, full of gung-ho arms control chaps from the Marines and the CIA and what not. The secretary general has no means of communication in Baghdad politically with the Iraqis. Now, he has somebody who knows the game and who he will use."

 Says Ambassador Shah, who is preparing to leave for the Iraqi capital where he will serve for an initial six-month period: "My role is to provide the political link between the Iraqi leadership and the secretary general." The ambassador says he would not arbitrate in case of problems involving the two main activities of the UN in Iraq—the UN weapons inspections and implementation of a humanitarian food for oil agreement.

 According to Shah, a Gujarati, Annan decided to create the position following his recent visit to Baghdad because he saw there was a vacuum resulting in a lack of communication between the secretary general and Iraq. "The secretary general determined that there is a lacunae as far as UN political activities in Iraq are concerned. Having such major projects there like food for oil, which runs into billions of dollars, UNSCOM and a number of other UN activities, there was a need for a special representative. He also found a number of issues that could get out of hand and possibly threaten the delicate situation and which needed the presence of a political envoy who could either intervene when such situations arise or draw the attention of the secretary general," explained Shah.

Annan had secured an agreement with the Iraqi government on February 23 on opening up all suspected Iraqi weapons sites for inspection, thereby averting US military strikes against Baghdad. The deal also established new procedures for the inspection of the so-called presidential sites, from which UNSCOM inspectors searching for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had been totally barred. And Shah is expected to continue in this line. In his letter appointing Shah, Annan stated that the ambassador would help prevent problems from developing into full-fledged crises that undermine international peace and security in the area. Nor is the ambassador daunted by the thought of going to Baghdad, a targeted war zone. "If one can contribute to preventing war and working out peaceful solutions, then it is a job worth doing".

There has been some amount of resentment about the fact that Shah will report directly to the secretary general and not to Richard Butler, the UNSCOM head honcho. Before heading UNSCOM, Butler had been Australia's UN envoy and a prime player when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) came for a vote at the world body. At that time, Shah, representing India, had several spirited differences with Butler. Diplomats, both from Western nations and the Third World, feel that if the Iraqi operations don't proceed smoothly, a Shah vs Butler showdown could develop in the months ahead.

Ambassador Shah brushes aside such fears. "I know Mr Butler very well. We have worked together. He was Australia's Permanent Representative here. We have very good personal relations and I don't see any possibility of difficulties arising," he stated.

However, Charles Lichenstein, former US representative to the UN, now at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, has voiced his reservations about the order of command. In an interview with Outlook he said: "You always ask for confusion when you have a division of authority in this regard. When you have one person reporting directly to the secretary general and the second person reporting also to the secretary general and not to each other. Because of the CTBT backgrounds of Ambassador Shah and Butler—each on the other side of the issue—they are unlikely to have an excellent relationship."

Lichenstein particularly anticipates conflict on the way Ambassador Butler implements his inspection regime. "So far the Iraqis are cooperative. But they will begin to play their games and then the question will be whether Ambassador Shah and Ambassador Butler will agree on what is happening. What will the Security Council do if they get conflicting signals?" the American asked. Noted a Western source at the UN: "Shah and Butler are similar personalities—both want to share the limelight. When there are two actors, there is always big scope for manipulating turf rivalries. And the Iraqis are quite adept at it."

DIPLOMATS from the developing world, on the other hand, were more positive. Says an Asian official: "They are fairly good friends, but the problem will come in the future. Both have fairly big egos and both actively seek publicity. Kofi knows this and he has deliberately made his choice, an astute choice, I would say. He has chosen someone who can take on Butler who has created quite a lot of problems for the secretary general with his statements. Butler has shot off his mouth several times. And Kofi would like to have someone who can cut Butler down." Comments a Latin American diplomat: "The secretary general basically wants a different channel of communication. I'm certain the Americans won't like this. Ambassador Shah will offer a bird's-eye view of things in Iraq, which Butler doesn't have. He's only responsible for the disarmament part. The secretary general wants someone to act as his eyes and ears, as Butler has his own agenda. That's why the Americans objected to the posting of a special envoy. They didn't want anyone other than UNSCOM—which means Butler. But they've had no specific opposition to Shah."

According to diplomatic sources, Ambassador Shah is quite a popular figure. Says an official: "He is liked by the Americans and not objected to by others. (Secretary of state) Madeleine Albright seems to have a very high opinion of him even when he was India's PR. He chaired this working group on the UN reforms and was seen as very positive and not bogged down by ideology. His career profile suited the assignment. He has served in the Indian Petroleum Ministry and is well aware of disarmament issues. These are two big issues involved in Iraq: oil and weapons. That's why he was picked."

"Being from India," says another source, "must have been helpful because New Delhi has a fairly strong position on sanctions. As a person he is acceptable. Kofi knew him even before he became secretary general. He may not be the dream candidate for the US, but I don't think the Americans had any specific objections."

 To the question why he was chosen for the job, the doughty ambassador says: "I presume the secretary general feels that the various qualities required for this job are in me. I think, being an Indian also helps. India's foreign policy is associated with fairness, neutrality and professionalism." However, according to American sources, the US had initially suggested a list of names which did not include Shah. Says a senior US official: "The idea of a political representative initially caused concern among some UN members who feared that it might mark an attempt to shift responsibility for eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction from the Security Council to the secretary general. I believe Mr Annan was trying to ease some of those suspicions. That's why he picked Shah rather than former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, who was widely regarded as the secretary general's first choice."

But what did the US think of Shah being appointed, knowing that India favoured a less confrontational and more conciliatory approach towards Iraq? Says the official: "We do not regard Shah as being an Indian appointee as such. He is the representative of the secretary general and his job is to keep Annan informed of events affecting the UN Special Commission, which is entrusted with searching for prohibited weapons systems, and UN humanitarian workers monitoring the programme that allows Iraq to sell limited amounts of oil to buy food and medicine."

Was there some scepticism that the post would give Iraq, and countries more sympathetic to its desire to end UN sanctions (such as India), a greater role in determining the methods and timing of weapons inspections, until now the sole domain of UNSCOM? "That is not within Shah's brief," comments the official.

So, what is his brief? Says Shah: "There are a number of problems, a whole range of issues that are complex and messy and the effort of the secretary general is to begin a sorting of these problems so that the resolutions of the Security Council are implemented, and the sufferings of the people of Iraq are alleviated."

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