by Samantha Power
n April 9, 2003, when a U.S. Marine tank helped topple the towering statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, many officials at the headquarters of the United Nations, in New York, averted their eyes from the celebratory images unfolding on CNN. A few days later, when a wide-shot photograph revealed that relatively few Iraqis had participated in the statue demolition, U.N. employees rapidly disseminated the image through e-mail. “We didn’t wish bad things for the Iraqis,” a U.N. official recalls. “But we were terrified that if the Bush Administration got away with walking all over international law it would jeopardize everything we stood for.”
The Security Council had withheld support for the invasion, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.N. diplomats had warned of the human suffering that it would cause; they were chastened by the ease with which the American-led Coalition had reached Baghdad, and by the relative bloodlessness of the battle. A swift victory, U.N. officials worried, would establish a dangerous precedent, emboldening member states to go to war even in the face of firm international opposition. Annan, speaking with colleagues, lamented the possibly irreparable loss of U.N. relevance.
French, German, and Russian diplomats cared less about the U.N. charter than about their own national interests. Having opposed the war, these countries had severely strained relations with Washington, and the diplomats feared the economic and political consequences. On May 22nd, the same countries on the Security Council which had refused to condone the invasion ahead of time joined the United States in voting for a resolution giving retroactive legitimacy to the occupation. These countries were eager to signal their support for a stable, democratic Iraq; to insure that they were not shut out of economic opportunities there; and to force the Americans to acknowledge that, under international law, they were formal occupiers, not “liberators.” They also wanted to try to give the U.N.—which they trusted more than the Americans—a significant role in shaping the new Iraq.
Many Iraqis were aghast when they learned of Resolution 1483. A month earlier, Moqtada al-Sadr, the militant Shiite cleric, had been asked, by the Washington Post, whether the Americans were occupiers or liberators. “I don’t know their intentions,” he said. “Only God does.” Sadr and millions of other Iraqis now had their answer: the U.N. resolution confirmed that it was indeed an occupation.
Annan, though aware of Resolution 1483’s problems, told colleagues that he was pleased to be “back in the game.” Mark Malloch Brown, then the head of the U.N. Development Program, told the Times that the measure was a “very good resolution” because it gave the U.N. a foot in the door. Annan and Malloch Brown knew the challenges of managing postwar transitions—a daunting task even in small countries like East Timor, which the U.N. oversaw between 1999 and 2002—and they were quietly relieved that the Security Council had not asked the U.N. to run Iraq.
Instead, the council had asked for a U.N. Special Representative for Iraq, who would help set up an Iraqi “interim administration.” Even this envoy was subservient to the Coalition. He would have a fraction of the powers of Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy appointed to Afghanistan in 2001, who had helped select that country’s first post-Taliban leader. Annan’s advisers disagreed about who should fill the Iraq post. Several of them believed that it should be a junior official whose rank would be commensurate with his almost laughably insignificant role. Kieran Prendergast, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, asked Annan, “Are the Americans actually going to create a space for us to play a political role, or are they intent on doing everything themselves and just appropriating the U.N. decal?” The British, who still hoped that the U.N. could play a vital role in Iraq, urged Annan to appoint an envoy strong enough to stand up to the Americans. Jeremy Greenstock, the British Ambassador to the U.N., told Annan that the choice was simple: “We are really talking about Sergio.”
Sergio Vieira de Mello, a fifty-five-year-old Brazilian diplomat, had worked his entire adult life for the U.N. In thirty-four years of service, he had held posts in Bangladesh, Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique, Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, Congo, Kosovo, and East Timor. Besides Portuguese, he spoke fluent English, French, Italian, and Spanish. In 2002, he had been promoted to High Commissioner for Human Rights. A reporter whom I met in the Balkans, where Vieira de Mello had served as a senior U.N. diplomat, aptly described him as a “cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy”; a strikingly handsome man, he was an idealist who pursued his goals with fierce pragmatism. When it served his agenda, he even made overtures to thugs. His colleague Carina Perelli, an Uruguayan who was head of the U.N. election division, called him an encantador de serpientes—a snake charmer. In the Balkans, he tried to win over the hard-line Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, a former psychiatrist, by presenting him with a copy of The New York Review of Books featuring the headline “WAR OVER PSYCHOANALYSIS.” He joked that his autobiography would be called “My Friends the War Criminals.”
Vieira de Mello was suited to the role of the U.N.’s Iraq envoy not because he knew the country—he did not—but because, as a humanitarian and a diplomat, he had amassed so much experience working in violent places with heads of state, dictators, rebel leaders, and refugees. In recent years, he had run the U.N. administrations in Kosovo and East Timor, where he had been invested with virtually the same overarching powers that L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, had been given in Iraq. Vieira de Mello had long ago stopped believing that he brought solutions to a troubled place, but he knew how to ask the questions that helped expose constructive ideas. Vieira de Mello could perhaps show the Americans what to do and what not to do. As Fred Eckhard, a former U.N. spokesman, told me, “Sergio was one of us. And he wasn’t a turncoat. He stood for what we stood for.”
The Americans were surprisingly enthusiastic about Vieira de Mello. A few weeks before the invasion, he had pulled off an unusual feat for a U.N. official: he had charmed President George W. Bush. On March 5th, at a meeting in the Oval Office, the President, impressed by Vieira de Mello’s lean physique, greeted him by grasping his shoulder and saying admiringly, “You must work out.” Vieira de Mello had criticized the rough handling of terrorist suspects at the American-run detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which he described as a “legal black hole,” and he had pressed the President to renounce torture. Yet Vieira de Mello had been careful not to rail against the President, and Bush had not responded defensively. Bush said that Guantánamo could not become a “country club,” and insisted that fighting terrorism demanded a forceful approach. Vieira de Mello nodded. “I know,” he said. “In East Timor I gave U.N. peacekeepers shoot-to-kill authority to go after the militia.” Later, Jonathan Prentice, Vieira de Mello’s special assistant, who attended the meeting, said to a colleague, “I can’t fucking believe this—the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is showing off about his shoot-to-kill policy!” But Prentice knew that Vieira de Mello’s words were strategic: “Sergio knew that Bush probably presumed him to be a tree hugger, and that this was a quick way to show him otherwise. That would give his subsequent criticisms more force.”
Vieira de Mello had never turned down an assignment before, but not long after his meeting with Bush he asked Iqbal Riza, Annan’s chief of staff, to remove his name from consideration for the Iraq post. He had spent two and a half years on a remote, sweltering island, governing East Timor, and he still felt depleted. He had served as human-rights commissioner for only eight months. Most important, after three decades of living in war zones, he had decided to consider his personal life. His two sons were grown, and in East Timor he had fallen in love with a twenty-nine-year-old Argentine-Italian U.N. official, Carolina Larriera; he had decided to end his marriage and start anew.
Still, Vieira de Mello took seriously the line in his contract stipulating that he serve wherever the Secretary-General sent him. He also relished being at the center of global events. As High Commissioner, he spent his days at a desk in Geneva. He felt removed from Iraq, one of the most wrenching geopolitical crises of our time. Although it had been years since he had acknowledged an aspiration to become Secretary-General, he must have known that the odds of his candidacy would rise significantly if he could help stabilize Iraq. He also knew that he was the best man for a bad mission and that he had more experience managing post-conflict transitions than any other person in the U.N. system. He could tap these skills to serve the Iraqi people.
In late May, Annan called Vieira de Mello to New York. When he arrived, he phoned Larriera, who was working as a public-information officer at the U.N. Together, they rehearsed the arguments for not going to Iraq. “Repeat after me, Sergio: ‘I can say no. I am the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and I’ve just started,’ ” Larriera said. “They probably just want to brainstorm about the other candidates,” he reassured her. But he knew better.
The meeting took place at Annan’s apartment, on the Upper East Side. Annan told Vieira de Mello that the Iraq envoy “will have to serve as a bridge to the Coalition, but he will also have to distance himself from the Coalition.” He would have to get out into the countryside and listen to ordinary Iraqis. And he would have to push the Coalition to develop a firmer timetable for holding elections, drafting a constitution, and transferring sovereignty. The overthrow of Saddam’s dictatorial regime had created a collapsed state and a security void, and the occupiers had worsened the situation by making critical mistakes: in May, the Coalition had demobilized Saddam’s Army, which had turned legions of armed Iraqis into enemies of the occupation. The C.P.A. had also begun purging Baath Party officials from Iraq’s key ministries, which vitiated the police force and impeded the delivery of services. Annan and Vieira de Mello did not discuss the physical risk of going to Iraq, because, although looting was rampant, it looked as though Saddam’s forces had been roundly defeated. In Baghdad, Iraqis, foreign journalists, and aid workers walked the streets in relative safety. Annan never asked him directly whether he would go to Iraq, but, after almost an hour of discussion, he said, “So when are we going to announce your appointment?”
Vieira de Mello accepted the job, on two conditions. First, he would choose his own team—allowing him to bring Larriera to Baghdad as an economic official. Second, unlike his stewardship of East Timor, which had dragged on a year longer than he thought it would, he would serve in Iraq for only four months. He would then hand the operation over to another Special Representative and return to Geneva.
“Sergio was the best man for the job,” says Kamel Morjane, then the United Nations Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, who was the runner-up for the position. “He was the one U.N. person who might be able to influence the U.S. and the U.K.” Another U.N. official recalls, “Everyone was hoping that 1483, with all of its absurdities, would be salvaged by Sergio himself. That was the whole plan: Sergio will fix it.”
Even if Vieira de Mello was torn about going to Iraq, he was pleased that the U.N. had been summoned. As he told a Wall Street Journal reporter, “After cursing the U.N. or calling it irrelevant or comparing it to the League of Nations . . . the United States very quickly came back, as it were, even though they will never admit it, in search for international legitimacy.” He continued, “My guess is that the U.S. and the U.K. and those that have joined will realize . . . that this is too big, that building a democratic Iraq is not simple. . . . And as a result they have every interest in encouraging others who are seen to be more impartial, independent, more palatable to join in and help create these new institutions. . . . We will then look back at the war as an interlude that will have lasted two or three months, that was indeed shocking and did shake us a great deal, but nothing more than that, an accident rather than a new pattern . . . and I touch wood when I say that.”
On June 2, 2003, Vieira de Mello was on a plane bound for Baghdad. He wore a gray tailored suit with an emerald Ferragamo tie—“the color of Islam,” he said. It was a birthday present from Larriera, who would join him on June 15th.
Despite Vieira de Mello’s relative ignorance about Iraq, he knew a lot about helping societies emerging from tyranny and conflict. In the eighties, he had helped lead the negotiations giving rise to the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees, which led to the return and resettlement of eighty thousand Vietnamese boat people. In 1992 and 1993, he had orchestrated the repatriation of some three hundred and fifty thousand Cambodian refugees. And in Kosovo and East Timor he had done everything from appointing judges to choosing new forms of currency and arranging for garbage collection.
He understood that he needed to establish momentum immediately. “I want Arabic speakers,” he told Prentice, his special assistant. Among the half-dozen Arabic speakers appointed for the mission was Ghassan Salamé, a former Lebanese cultural minister and a professor at the Institut d’Études Politiques, in Paris. Salamé had studied Iraqi history and knew leading Iraqi opposition officials and intellectuals, as well as members of the Baath regime. Salamé had warned Vieira de Mello that the influence of Iraq’s neighbors would increase in the coming months, and he said that the Americans had committed hara-kiri by demobilizing Saddam’s Army. Salamé had opposed the war, but he wanted to help the U.N. end the occupation. He agreed to become Vieira de Mello’s chief political adviser.
On the plane to Baghdad, Vieira de Mello studied Resolution 1483, focussing on a provision “stressing the right of the Iraqi people freely to determine their own political future.” The resolution did not say precisely what the U.N. should do to make this happen. According to the resolution, the U.N. Special Representative would “encourage” and “promote” measures to improve Iraqi welfare. “I think I could just as easily ‘encourage’ progress from Geneva,” he joked to Prentice.
Before landing, Vieira de Mello edited a statement that he would deliver on the tarmac upon landing. “For a three-minute speech, it seemed excessive to scrutinize and rescrutinize every clause,” said Ahmad Fawzi, a U.N. spokesman. “But for Sergio it had to be just so.” Vieira de Mello had come to understand what American planners had not adequately grasped before invading Iraq: outsiders almost never get the chance to revise a first impression.
When the flight landed in Baghdad, about a dozen journalists were at the airport. The return of the U.N. to Iraq had been widely hailed in the region and beyond, and Vieira de Mello had expected a large turnout. But many journalists were across town, where Paul Bremer had held a press conference that same afternoon. “It felt like a bust,” a U.N. official recalls. Nevertheless, Vieira de Mello presented himself meticulously, tucking his prepared text into his breast pocket. “The day when Iraqis govern themselves must come quickly,” he declared. “In the coming days, I intend to listen intensively to what the Iraqi people have to say.”
Soon after arriving, Vieira de Mello met with the U.N. humanitarian coördinator in Iraq, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, a Portuguese official who had held the post since the previous year. In 1999, Lopes da Silva had been a member of a daring ten-day assessment mission that Vieira de Mello had led into Kosovo, under the cover of NATO bombing, and, as native Portuguese speakers, they shared a cultural bond. The U.N. had so much work to do in Iraq that the two men could divide their labor. Lopes da Silva would coördinate the work of the humanitarian and reconstruction agencies. Vieira de Mello, who preferred high politics to what he had once called “grocery delivery,” would undertake the more controversial task of trying to persuade the Americans to present to the Iraqi public a scheme for ending the occupation. He knew that his two goals—earning the trust of the Iraqis and developing a strong working relationship with the Coalition—might be seen as contradictory by Iraqis hostile to American rule.
When Vieira de Mello first arrived in East Timor, in 1999, the Timorese had been deeply grateful to the U.N. for having staged a referendum that had led to its independence from Indonesia. But in Iraq U.N. civil servants like Vieira de Mello were tarred by their association with the weapons inspectors whom the U.N. had sent into the country during Saddam’s regime; they were equally resented for the sanctions that the U.N. member states had imposed on Saddam’s regime, crippling the economy. Some Iraqis even saw officials working for the humanitarian Oil-for-Food program as agents of punishment. There were advantages, however, to having a history in Iraq. Whereas the Coalition relied disproportionately on Iraqi exiles for intelligence, the U.N. had three thousand Iraqi staff members who had remained in the country, even during the invasion. Vieira de Mello thought that it would be easier for him to get a read on the Iraqi street than it was for Bremer.
Vieira de Mello and his team moved into offices in the Canal Hotel, a three-story building in the eastern suburbs of Baghdad, which had been converted from a hotel-management school into U.N. headquarters in the nineteen-eighties. Trimmed with the U.N.’s trademark light blue, the building was well known to Iraqis. Vieira de Mello was given a spacious corner office on the third floor.
On June 3rd, he travelled to the Green Zone, the four-and-a-half-square-mile fortified district along the Tigris where the Americans had set up the Coalition Provisional Authority, to meet Bremer. Concrete blast walls and concertina wire surrounded it, and sandbagged U.S. machine-gun posts warded off intruders. As U.S. soldiers inspected the badges of officials in the U.N. convoy, Vieira de Mello observed a long line of Iraqis looking for work or attempting to register complaints. Seeing the rough inspections that Iraqis were subjected to, Vieira de Mello shook his head and muttered to Prentice, “There go the hearts and minds.”
He was appalled by the willful isolation of the Americans. Vieira de Mello, in a later phone conversation with Bernard Kouchner, the French diplomat who had succeeded him in administering Kosovo, said, “It is just like Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. They have created their own wooden town. They stay in their barracks. They leave in armored cars. They wear flak jackets. They barely go out, and when they do they return as quickly as possible.”
When Vieira de Mello and his U.N. team entered the former palace where Bremer had chosen to work, they saw Americans emerging from offices identified as various Iraqi ministries. Resolution 1483 had envisaged the Coalition as a temporary authority in Iraq; Vieira de Mello now realized that the Coalition considered itself an actual government. At the meeting, Bremer explained that he saw Phase One of the transition as the uprooting of the Baathist regime and the establishment of law, order, and basic services. Vieira de Mello worried that these goals were at cross-purposes: uprooting the old regime would undermine the state’s power to provide the services and stability that Bremer recognized were essential. Yet Bremer seemed unconcerned. “We expect to turn the corner in the next month or so,” he said. Phase Two, Bremer went on, included economic reconstruction, job creation, and the formation of democratic bodies. He intended to appoint a group of Iraqis that would select the drafters of a new constitution. Vieira de Mello winced at the idea that a constitution would be drafted before general elections were held, as it would seem like an illegitimate American charter. But he held back his views, characteristically reluctant to alienate somebody before he had first had the chance to win him over. (Douglas Stafford, the former Deputy U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, once described Vieira de Mello as “a man who doesn’t know how to make an enemy.”)
Vieira de Mello returned to the Canal Hotel, where he had a heated discussion with his top staff. Jamal Benomar, one of his Arab-speaking advisers, insisted that the U.S., by taking over the governing functions of Iraq and acting as a full sovereign, had already violated Resolution 1483. He urged Vieira de Mello to press for the immediate creation of an Iraqi government. Otherwise, the U.N. would appear complicit in an occupation despised by Iraqis. Vieira de Mello countered that Bremer would respond badly to criticism. He believed that the U.N. had to work with the Americans in order to change their approach. “We can’t just sit at the Canal Hotel and do nothing,” he told his team. “You can’t help people from a distance.”
In his meetings with American and British officials, Vieira de Mello never focussed on whether the Coalition should be in Iraq in the first place. “The war was a fact,” Prentice says. “The occupation was a fact. You’ve got two choices when you have those facts: either you can try to help the Iraqi people out of the mess and urge a swift end to the occupation. Or you can take the moral high ground and turn your back.” Vieira de Mello had often spoken of the importance of “black-boxing” intentions. “By taking the Americans at their word, and then making them abide by those words, you create leverage,” he told colleagues. In 1991, Khmer Rouge leaders had signed a peace agreement, and Vieira de Mello treated it with respect, even after Khmer Rouge guerrillas continued to engage in violence. Senior Khmer Rouge officials grew to trust him, which helped him complete his ambitious refugee-return plan. Over the years, Vieira de Mello’s approach made him unpopular with his more doctrinaire U.N. colleagues, who saw him as accommodationist and amoral. (In the Balkans, several of his critics had nicknamed him Serbio.)
On his third night in Baghdad, Vieira de Mello had dinner with John Sawers, the British diplomat who served as Bremer’s deputy. Vieira de Mello described what he took to be the lesson of East Timor. “The Timorese were O.K. with the U.N. in charge for a certain, brief period of time, but at a certain point, we had to switch to a support role,” he told Sawers. “You’ll have to do the same.” After the dinner, he began forwarding suggestions to Sawers. “If Bremer thinks these are British ideas rather than U.N. ideas, they are far more likely to be accepted,” he said.
At the first meeting between mid-level U.N. and C.P.A. officials in the Green Zone, copies of Resolution 1483 were passed out, and the group went over the text line by line. The Americans looked flummoxed. “What does ‘encourage’ mean?” one asked. “We don’t know,” Nadia Younes, the U.N. chief of staff, said. “You wrote the thing!” Jamal Benomar recalls, “The C.P.A. made clear that what it expected of the U.N. was for us to issue a press release from time to time, applauding the Coalition’s efforts. They would do everything and we would clap.” (Bremer told me that he liked the resolution, because it left no doubt who governed Iraq: “We were the sovereign. Under international law, you are either sovereign or you are not. It’s like being pregnant. Under 1483, the role that Sergio and the U.N. could play was limited. They were there to help us.”)
Vieira de Mello’s team members were disheartened by their dealings with the Coalition. Nearly all the U.N. staff had privately opposed the U.S.-led invasion. They found Coalition officials absurdly young and inexperienced. Many were politically conservative, and they dreamed aloud of turning Iraq into a laboratory for free-market democracy. Almost none of them spoke Arabic.
The suspicion was mutual. U.S. officials had not forgotten the U.N. Security Council’s refusal to support the war. In late June, Vieira de Mello was stopped at a Coalition checkpoint on the airport road. Alain Chergui, his bodyguard, told an Army lieutenant that U.N. vehicles, under international rules, were not to be checked. The lieutenant refused to let the U.N. convoy pass. “Do you know who is in the car?” Chergui said, frustrated. “No, and I don’t care,” the lieutenant replied. Chergui called Bremer’s chief of staff, who tried to intervene. But the lieutenant was still unmoved. Vieira de Mello, humiliated, finally stepped out of the car and placed a call to Bremer, who got an officer on the staff of the U.S. commander General Ricardo Sanchez to order the convoy through.
In the summer of 2003, Baghdad was not nearly as dangerous as Sarajevo had been when Vieira de Mello had lived there under siege in 1993. The Iraqis whom Vieira de Mello met talked about theft, unemployment, lack of electricity, and the indignity of a foreign occupation, but they were not yet worried about suicide bombers or civil war. An insurgency had begun, but Coalition forces were its targets, and in June and July it seemed plausible that the attacks were the last gasp of the Baathist regime.
Nevertheless, Vieira de Mello was careful. He was initially housed on one of the top floors of the Sheraton Hotel in central Baghdad, but the elevators rarely worked. “How would I make it down all these stairs if the hotel were hit?” he asked his bodyguard. In late June, he moved his residence to the nearby Cedar Hotel, which was smaller and less trafficked.
In previous U.N. missions, Vieira de Mello had helped boost staff morale by making himself available after hours for drinks. But in Baghdad he rarely socialized. When Larriera arrived, she brought items he had requested—chocolate, CDs of Brazilian music, photographs from East Timor, and, for good luck, two small iron Buddhas that they had bought together in Thailand. He held a few wine-and-cheese parties in his office at the Canal, but he typically hurried home to his drab oasis at the Cedar Hotel. “I’ll cook,” he would say when he and Larriera reached the hotel; most days, they picked up leftovers at the Canal’s cafeteria, and he heated them up on a tiny electric burner. The staff grumbled that he was reclusive. Salamé pushed him to go out for at least Friday lunches. On one occasion, when he thought he was having lunch alone with Salamé, he arrived at the restaurant and found a table filled with U.N. staff. After waiting out the meal stiffly, he told Salamé, “Next time, tell me who’s coming to lunch.”
Though Vieira de Mello withheld himself from his colleagues, he insisted that the U.N. promote its accessibility. Only thirty American soldiers patrolled the perimeter of the U.N. headquarters, and Vieira de Mello did not request reinforcements, believing that a more visible U.S. presence would, perversely, invite attack. The more isolated Bremer and the Americans became, the more welcoming Vieira de Mello and his colleagues made the U.N.: Iraqis regularly met with U.N. staff in the cafeteria for tea or coffee, and made use of the U.N.’s computers to check e-mail. The security officers were concerned that if a bomb went off nearby it might shatter some of the Canal’s many windows. A U.N. security team decided to put a blast-resistant film over the windows. But, because it was not clear which administrative budget should cover the expense, only Vieira de Mello’s office and the cafeteria were treated; the rest of the project was deferred.
Day by day, Baghdad was growing more violent. The Bush Administration had sent in too few U.S. troops to fill the security vacuum or to control Iraq’s borders, allowing foreign insurgents to pass easily into Iraq. And other U.N. member states, having opposed the invasion, were reluctant to offer stability forces or civilian police, as they had done for the peacekeeping missions in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. Bremer’s demobilization and de-Baathification decrees had alienated the very Iraqis who might have maintained security. And many still had their guns.
Vieira de Mello urged Bremer to scale back the de-Baathification edict by targeting only top-tier party officials rather than mid-level technocrats. He also pleaded with the Coalition to cater to the needs of the Iraqi Army veterans. He reminded Bremer that U.N. officials had experience setting up programs to reintegrate demobilized soldiers into civilian life or into professional police forces; they had facilitated this process in East Timor and Bosnia, for example. And he told Bremer that Javier Solana, the Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union, had raised the possibility that the E.U. would contribute police forces through the U.N. Bremer responded that the Europeans would have to put their police at the disposal of the Coalition.