U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi spoke with TIME's Vivienne Walt in his makeshift office in the Republican Palace in Baghdad last week. Excerpts:
THERE ARE MANY IRAQIS WHO SAY YOU ARE BASICALLY LEGITIMIZING THE OCCUPATION. Look, there may have been a case for saying that before. We may have legitimized the occupation when the occupation was trying to establish itself after the war. Now the occupation is saying, We want to go away. If we are helping the occupation do anything, we're helping them get out.
But I am telling Iraqis, If you expect that on the 30th of June, midnight, 135,000 American soldiers are going to evaporate out of some Aladdin's lamp out of Iraq, then that is not going to happen. And what I am also saying every day is, You need to sit down now as a sovereign government to see what the American soldiers are going to do, what they are allowed to do, what they are not allowed to do, and how they are going to be phased out of your country.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF CRITICISM FROM SOME ON THE GOVERNING COUNCIL THAT YOU ARE DOING WASHINGTON'S BIDDING BY SALVAGING A BIG MESS CREATED BY THE AMERICANS? That's very flattering. I am doing what the U.N. wants me to do. Having said a year ago that the U.N. is irrelevant, for the U.S. to say now that the U.N. is not irrelevant, this is something I welcome and that everyone should welcome. I think we are doing what a lot of Iraqis have said they wanted the U.N. to do all along. Even when I was in Afghanistan, I used to receive all sorts of messages from Iraqis both inside and outside the country, saying, Where is the U.N.? And where are you personally?
When you in the press say, Brahimi is forming a government, I abhor that. I don't think this is what I'm trying to do. What I'm doing is listening to what Iraqis are saying that they want.
ARE THERE PEOPLE WHO WILL BE PLAYERS IN THIS NEW GOVERNMENT WHOM YOU WOULD NOT HAVE EXPECTED A MONTH AGO? All of them. We didn't know much about who was going to be in the government. Whenever you mention a name, it is very often known only to a few people around them. To everybody else, the question is, Who is he? Where was he or she? So that means that there is not a slate of five people you choose from.
HOW CONFIDENT ARE YOU THAT IRAQ WILL REMAIN A UNIFIED NATION? I don't think people can think of any other real alternative. There are regular public-opinion polls made by all sorts of people, and there is one thing that is consistent, and that is that all Iraqis you talk to say they don't consider any other Iraq than the one that exists.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT THE SECURITY SITUATION WILL SOMEHOW IMPROVE AFTER JUNE 30? That's what we hope will happen, but it will require a lot of work--by the Iraqis. That is what I always insist on. The U.N. does not do anything on its own.