Staffan de Mistura on Advising Iraq

Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. Secretary-General's new special representative in Iraq, has been a troubleshooter in 19 conflicts worldwide. The United Nations all but withdrew from Iraq in 2004, after a suicide bomber killed envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others at its compound. The Italian-Swedish diplomat is the first new U.N. envoy since the Security Council passed Resolution 1770, allowing his agency to work on reconstruction and advise the Iraqi government. De Mistura sat down with NEWSWEEK's Rod Nordland and Larry Kaplow in Baghdad.

Newsweek: You were last here just after the Samarra shrine bombing set off sectarian warfare. How does it seem now?
De Mistura: I did notice that there has been some change for the better, and also some very strong worries. There is a perception compared to two or three months ago that things have been improving. Now, there are still 90 incidents per day [in Baghdad]. There used to be 300. We have to be realistic: improving from 300 to 90 is good, but 90 is a lot … So the feeling I get is one that there has been a change, but the change is fragile—quite fragile, because we need now to altogether capitalize on it, and particularly the Iraqis have to. There is a window of opportunity, which needs not to be missed. And that's where I think the U.N. role can be helpful, and the new U.N. resolution, which gives a new, larger, broader mandate, can help. If we don't see any progress among the Iraqis regarding their own internal dialogue, which means addressing some of the issues which are not being addressed—the electoral law, the constitutional issues … the oil sharing, the provincial borders and the way that those who are returning have been handled and supported—then we will have missed a big opportunity.

And nothing has been done on any of those issues you mentioned, to speak of.
Correct. But there are a lot of discussions about it and this is already good news to me because if they are discussing, we can contribute as honest brokers. At the end of the day it is really up to them.

Now that the U.N. has an expanded mandate, is it going to expand in size and operate more from Iraq instead of from Jordan?
I have not been talking about the issue of numbers, but I think it is now time to say so. We are more than 260 now, international staff, in Iraq itself, and we have at least 400 national colleagues working with us, highly professional, so 600-plus. That includes security, but of course security is an issue which in Iraq is a priority. If the security situation will allow it, you will see a substantial increase of U.N. activities in Iraq and of U.N. staff presence in the country. The issue is not just numbers; it is the quality of the contribution that our colleagues can give.

What proportion of that total is dedicated to security?
I should not elaborate on that. There is a substantive portion.

What can the U.N. add when the U.S. has 160,000 troops and provincial reconstruction teams all over the country?
The U.N. has many weaknesses, but it has some few strengths, and those strengths are quite valuable in Iraq. Sixty-odd years of experience in such environments—we are perceived as neutral and impartial and technical, not political. We are normally allowed and capable of meeting everyone. Last but not least, the U.N. can attract members of the U.N. who have already indicated if it was under the U.N. umbrella they would be comfortable in coming back.

So our headline here could be "The U.N. Is Back"?
The U.N. is back, but it has always been here. Resolution 1770 brings the U.N. back in a role in which it was not before, but the U.N. has been here for the last 40 years and the last four years, but in a different profile.

What are your priorities? You've talked about provincial boundaries, which means Kirkuk.
The trick for the U.N. will be to pick and choose, together with the Iraqis, which will be the areas where we can have an added value, and in a time that is quick, because the window we are talking about is now. Regional dialogue, because the regional players are all members of the U.N. Provincial boundaries, which is not necessarily Kirkuk by name—the whole issue of that area. The third area is the priority of the month, and that is certainly the internally displaced people; if they are returning, we can help in a positive way.

You describe yourself as an "operational diplomat" and say that's what the secretary-general wants here now. What does that mean exactly?
You will see. Results-oriented.

Have you been talking to your security people about getting out more than the U.N. has lately done here?
We are working on that … bearing in mind that security after what happened to my friend Sergio is, for us, a priority.

When you were offered this one-year assignment, what was your reaction?
My first concern was my family. I've been over 36 years covering 19 war zones. My family was hoping I'd keep my promise that this time I would stay home with them for a while. But they understand this is going to be a crucial year for Iraq. So that helped with the negotiation.