Preparing to scuttle?
Will the Obama administration cut and run, leaving the United Nations to sort out the chaos in Iraq, asks Salah Hemeid
With efforts to form a new government reaching stalemate, violence soaring and US combat troops on target to leave the country in a few weeks time, Iraq seems heading towards further political uncertainty and even greater chaos.
As the crisis in the country deepens, debate in recent days has focussed on efforts made outside Iraq to resolve it, including a possible greater role for the United Nations in helping to reconstruct Iraq.
The present deadlock comes at a critical period, when Washington is in the process of drawing down its seven-year-old occupation force to a non-combat force of 50,000.
Meanwhile, Iraqi forces, built upon sectarian divisions, are widely seen as being ineffective and incapable of protecting the country from internal and external threats.
Amid increasing fears for the future of the country after the withdrawal of US combat troops, reports are emerging of diplomatic efforts to engage the United Nations in post-withdrawal Iraq.
On Saturday, the New York Times suggested that US President Barack Obama may have to turn to the United Nations for help in solving the country's five-month-long government crisis.
The US newspaper argued that there was little time left for Iraq's leaders to cooperate together and suggested that the United Nations should now "lay compromise proposals on the table and convene Iraqi leaders for a decision-making meeting".
Last week the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported that the United Nations mission in Iraq was expected to present a report to the Security Council on 4 August that would propose a larger UN role in resolving the crisis.
On Sunday Iraqi Vice-President Adil Abdel-Mahdi warned that the worsening crisis in the country might prompt the UN Security Council to intervene to impose a compromise, adding further fuel to speculation about an enhanced UN role in Iraq.
However, Al-Ahram Weekly has also learned from Iraqi diplomats and politicians that ideas have been floated recently about a more assertive UN role in Iraq under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.
Under Security Council resolutions relating to the occupation of the country, Iraq is the responsibility of the UN and the council has a special role to play in making decisions affecting its future.
According to Security Council Resolution 1546, the UN is mandated to help Iraq build "a democratic government".
The resolution also set up the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), designed to play a leading role in such areas as promoting national dialogue and consensus-building.
In comments made to the Weekly from Baghdad, Iraqi politicians said that the idea of the UN playing an increased role was proposed by a US congressional delegation visiting Baghdad some weeks ago.
The delegation had warned Iraqi leaders that the Obama administration might invoke Chapter 7 of the UN Charter in order to pass responsibility for the country to the UN, which would form a transitional government.
One Iraqi diplomat said that private discussions were underway at UN headquarters in New York relating to "a crucial report" by the head of UNAMI, Ad Melkert, which would be presented to the Security Council this week.
He said that Melkert's report was expected to make reference to Iraq's status under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter and the process of forming a new government.
"Discussions were held regarding the possibility that Melkert would propose forming a transitional government that would then organise a new round of parliamentary elections," the diplomat said, asking to remain anonymous.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari failed to persuade members of the Security Council to release Iraq from its Chapter 7 status during a visit to New York this month.
The first sign of a larger role for the UN came last month in a proposal made by the commander of the US forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, to deploy UN peacekeeping forces in areas disputed by Kurds and Arabs when US troops leave Iraq.
For its part, the Obama administration has so far maintained its silence on such possibilities, having pushed for an expanded UN presence in Iraq that does not involve a directly administrative role.
While Iraqi Sunnis are expected to welcome greater UN involvement, the country's Shias and Kurds are expected to resist any such moves, which they would consider to be an attempt to weaken their control of the government.
It is not yet clear whether the UN would agree to take on a larger role in Iraq, including sending a peacekeeping force, since the international body is likely to want to avoid sinking deeper into the Iraqi quagmire.
Thus far, UN efforts have been largely restricted to trying to convince the country's different political groups to form a broad-based coalition government in order to end the present impasse.
In May, Melkert told the Security Council that UN efforts were guided by three aims: forming a governing coalition that would include all the major winning parties; forming a government based on power- sharing; and forming a government within an agreed timeframe.
Five months after national elections gave a Sunni-backed alliance led by Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister, a two-seat lead over Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's Shia coalition, Iraqi politicians are still squabbling over who should form the new government.
So far, there has been no sign of agreement, and wrangling has now moved into the coalitions themselves, threatening further division and fragmentation.
Although the rival blocs are divided on factional lines, presenting avowedly sectarian or ethnically oriented demands, many of them are also internally divided, with smaller groups inside each coalition fighting to maintain their interests.
The Shia Iraqi National Coalition, for example, designed to unite the Shia factions with a view to forming a new government, has been crumbling as a result of differences about who should be the next prime minister.
Problems within the Allawi-led Sunni alliance have also started to surface. On Sunday, Salam Al-Zawbai, a former deputy prime minister and a leader of the Iraqiya bloc, criticised the bloc's other leaders for "putting self interest ahead of the nation's interest."
There are increasing fears that if the political stalemate continues, the country will fall apart in a political and security vacuum created by the US troop withdrawal.
Iraq remains very dangerous, and Al-Qaeda-inspired militants, seeking to exploit the political stalemate, are active in several cities with levels of violence soaring.
More than 60 Iraqis were killed on Monday and dozens of others injured in attacks across the country. At least 40 people were killed and 68 injured in two bomb attacks in the Shia holy city of Karbala, as large crowds gathered for a religious ceremony.
At least four people were killed and 16 injured in a suicide bombing near the Baghdad office of the Al-Arabiya satellite television station.
A day earlier, more than 50 people were killed in attacks near Baghdad, including a double suicide bombing that targeted former Sunni insurgents who had switched sides to fight alongside US forces.
A further factor pointing in the direction of greater UN involvement is that the Iraqi security forces have not proved able to stage operations without US assistance.
Despite billions of dollars of American aid, there are doubts about the Iraqi military and police's capacity to provide security in the country.
The Israeli website Debkafile, believed to be close to Israeli intelligence, reported this week that Washington was planning to retain a number of US troops in Iraq "possibly as UN peacekeepers after the pullout which is due to start on 1 September."
The site quoted military sources as saying that Obama administration officials were "holding intense consultations with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon for the US detachment staying on in Iraq to be reclassified as international peacekeepers."
This would mean that not all the American troops due to withdraw in six weeks time will in fact do so, and that they will also be empowered by their blue-helmet status in Iraq to help enforce UN Security Council sanctions against neighbouring Iran.
However, for the time being while all agree that danger continues to loom large in Iraq, it is hard to see the international community wanting to step in to clean up the mess the US has created in the country.