UN offers to help broker cease-fire in Iraq


The United Nations has offered its help to try to stop some of the worst fighting seen in Iraq in about four months between Shia militiamen and coalition forces.

The United Nations, which is helping Iraq prepare for a National Conference in mid-August, said in a statement that it "is ready to extend its facilitating role to the current crisis, if this would be helpful."

The statement said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, urged that force be used only as a "last resort" and called "for every effort to be made, even at this late hour, to work out a cease-fire and peaceful solution."

Although just a handful of UN staff are in Iraq -- a team of technical experts helping set up a national conference on Iraq's political future, and a security liaison team - the world body has maintained contacts with many parties in Iraq.

It helped facilitate organization of the interim government and is aiding Iraq's preparations for national elections next year. But it has not been involved in helping negotiate cease-fires between American-led coalition forces and Iraqi militants.

The statement added that Mr Annan said he was "extremely concerned at the widespread fighting that has broken out in Iraq over the last several days, especially in the holy city of Najaf."

"He is particularly troubled by the high toll of dead and wounded, including civilian casualties."

In the past three days, US Marines said they had killed 300 militiamen loyal to Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf. But the cleric said only 36 militiamen had been killed.

The United Nations welcomed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's offer of a limited amnesty for insurgents and wider participation in the political process as steps in the right direction.

The new UN chief envoy for Iraq, veteran Pakistani diplomat Mr Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, will go to Baghdad this month along with a small team to re-establish a permanent UN presence.

The world body at one point had some 600 international staff working in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion. All were pulled out last year after a bomb attack on UN offices in Baghdad.

Hundreds of UN staff are working on Iraqi projects from neighboring Jordan.