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If the US is serious about rebuilding Iraq it will give the job to the UN

By Andrew Hewett - posted Monday, 31 March 2003

Successful post-war reconstruction of Iraq will be dependent on two factors: United Nations leadership and Iraqi ownership of the reconstruction process.

As military planners grapple with a war that is becoming more complex by the day, reconstruction planners face many challenges in rebuilding Iraq.

The physical reconstruction of Iraq is only a small part of the challenge. There's the legacy of 25 years of Saddam's rule, the 13 years of socially destructive UN sanctions, the lack of a united Iraqi political movement to govern and the deep divisions that this war has brought to the UN and to the international community more generally.


Other post-conflict experiences - notably Afghanistan, East Timor, Kosovo and Bosnia can teach us much about successful post-war reconstruction.

The UN must play the leading role in the immediate aftermath of war. It is the only body with the legitimacy and experience to help establish a representative and accountable Iraqi administration. The alternative - an administration set up by the Coalition of the willing - would clearly lack both. Any transitional government established by the US and its allies would be perceived, by the Iraqis and the wider world, as a mere tool of the occupying powers.

The UN needs a mandate for reconstruction that is clear, credible and achievable. A second Security Council resolution will be required - not an easy task given the poisonous atmosphere at the Security Council in the wake of the Coalition's war.

Establishing an Iraqi transitional authority through a process of negotiation, perhaps akin to the Bonn process for Afghanistan, will be the most pressing political task. Such an authority must be committed to creating a responsive and accountable government, capable of reactivating the economy, protecting all civilians and providing basic services to women, men and children, including humanitarian assistance where necessary.

There will be grave threats to the safety of Iraqi civilians after the war. Experiences elsewhere indicate that ethnic and religious tensions, political retribution and sexual violence could spiral. The UN alone may not have the capacity to re-establish and maintain security and protection for the civilian population and the task may fall to Coalition forces. If this happens, then it is critical - as in Bosnia and Kosovo - that these forces work closely with the UN authority.

Any new Iraqi administration must build upon existing community and administrative structures. Unless there is meaningful participation from broader Iraqi society - including ethnic minorities and women - democracy and peace stand little chance. Such democracy will also rely upon bringing to justice those implicated in human rights abuses or gross corruption. With a well-educated population, strong foundations for economic growth and a civil service widely perceived to be well-trained and capable, local ownership of the reconstruction process is clearly achievable.


Kick-starting the national economy, repairing damaged infrastructure and restoring basic social services will be immediate priorities. Aid will be important and its impact will be maximised if it is channeled through the UN and used to employ local staff and purchase local goods and services.

Tied aid of the sort being promoted by the United States is exactly the wrong sort of approach. The American government's plans to invite reconstruction tenders exclusively from US companies, with the insistence that all senior staff are United State citizens and the inclusion of "buy US" clauses, can only undermine the reconstruction of Iraq.

Governments which have fought the war will need to help pay for its aftermath. This moral responsibility applies to Australia, which should commit substantial resources to the reconstruction of Iraq. Treasurer Costello has found the money to fight a war. He needs to do so again to help build a peace.

The long-term damage of this war to regional stability, international institutions and the lives of Iraqi people will be considerable. A reconstruction process that is coordinated by the UN and committed to empowering Iraqi civilians is essential if Iraq is to realise true democracy.

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About the Author

Andrew Hewett is Executive Director of Oxfam Australia.

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