Hannes Artens has a good post at the Agonist shedding light what UNAMI — the U.N. mission in Iraq — is doing to bring final-status negotiations on Kirkuk, Mosul and other disputed Iraqi territories to a peaceful conclusion. (For the basic outlines of the Kurdish/Arab/Assyrian/Chaldean/Shabak/etc conflict, see this Prospect column from last year.)

UNAMI’s efforts are a textbook example of what the U.N. does well. The problem: if a constitutionally-guaranteed referendum on Kirkuk and the other contested cities goes forward, there will be clear winners and losers among factions that have both the desire and the capability for violent retribution. So you need to defer the referendum. But — ah! — the moment of reckoning has been deferred, by one means or another, since 2003, and the very powerful Kurds are tired of all the foreplay. UNAMI’s answer is to start carving up territory:

Under the proposal, Akre district in Nineveh province would be ceded to Dohuk, Makhmour to Erbil, Hamdaniya would remain within Nineveh, and Mandali would become part of Diyala province.

Such a reciprocal territorial swap and redrawing of provincial borders, if accompanied, as the report suggests, by a set of confidence building measures (development projects, protection and possible compensation for minorities, etc.) may create a win-win situation for Kurds and Sunni Arabs and would establish much needed trust between the main antagonists.

It should be clear that substituting a referendum for a quick fix imposed by the international community is, to understate matters, problematic. Arens’s post emphasizes that UNAMI considers the provincial dismemberment/reshuffling to be another mechanism for deferring the referendum, but this would be the first one that actually provides an immediate, tangible result for all sides. Yes, we’re talking about hope as a plan here — rejectionists can easily say that they don’t accept a scheme derived from the same United Nations that enforced an onerous and corrupt sanctions regime on Iraq during the 1990s. And, barring support from Washington for the process that surely won’t come, they might.

But this is exactly the sort of hard-case test for the U.N. that demonstrates its value. UNAMI’s solution is bad one, but everyone else’s is worse. The U.N. doesn’t have much credibility in Iraq, but every other actor has less, when seen through the eyes of one-or-another stakeholder. Legitimacy is an extremely precious commodity. The virtue of an international body that can be really fucking annoying to this-or-that power at any given time is that it’s the legitimacy-depository of last resort.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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