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In New York, U.N. Officials React With Agony, Resolve

Many grieve for colleagues in the Baghdad attack and question the world body's role. But they vow to stay the course.

August 20, 2003|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — The brutal attack on the U.N.'s Baghdad headquarters represents a major setback for the organization, and sparked second thoughts among leaders about lending its legitimacy and its people's lives for other countries' wars.

But officials emphasized that they went into Iraq to help its people and would not walk away.

The response at the U.N.'s New York headquarters was anguished and varied. The Security Council immediately denounced the "terrorist criminal attack" and declared its determination to stay the course. The staff union's security committee demanded a withdrawal of all workers from Iraq until their protection can be guaranteed. Some diplomats said that the U.N. should demand a greater role in Iraq if their colleagues were putting their lives on the line there.

"Nothing can excuse this act of unprovoked and murderous violence against men and women who went to Iraq for one purpose only -- to help the Iraqi people," Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement from Norway, where he is vacationing.

Iraq represents a turning point for the U.N., which did not support the U.S.-led invasion and was seen by some in Iraq and the region as not having done enough to stop it. Iraqi officials before the war had charged the U.N. with "firing the first bullet of the war" by withdrawing peacekeepers and weapons inspectors from the country, allowing coalition forces to go in.

Some U.N. officials saw involvement in postwar Iraq as a "lose-lose situation" for the world body. If the U.N. pulled out, it would be seen as abandoning people in a humanitarian crisis. If the U.N. stayed in, it could be seen as collaborating with the coalition forces.

On Tuesday, that agonizing debate revived in the halls and offices of the headquarters, as staffers grieved quietly over lost friends and colleagues. Everyone seemed to know Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. envoy in Iraq who was killed in Tuesday's bombing.

"This is the effect of terror," one staffer said. "We have to ask, why are we in there? What price are we willing to pay?"

As Annan raced back to New York on Tuesday, his top officials gathered on the 38th floor to discuss these questions. Tun Myat, the U.N. security coordinator, will leave for Iraq on Thursday to reassess the risks and recommend whether the remaining staffers in Iraq should stay, and just how they will be able to continue their work.

There are about 300 international staff members in Baghdad, and more than 600 around the country, assisted by thousands of local employees. Some agencies have been delivering food, water, medicine and educational materials throughout the country, while other U.N. employees have been working with Iraqi groups on preparing eventual elections. An upgraded threat level would allow only the staffers providing basic humanitarian services to stay, and a top-level alert would cause all employees to be withdrawn.

"It would be a tragic mistake to pull out now," said Samir Sanbar, a recently retired U.N. official who occasionally advises Annan. "The U.N.'s role is being challenged, its people are being hit. Now is the time to be more determined than ever to take a central place in Iraq."

Vieira de Mello had voiced clear concerns about security even before he left for Baghdad, and repeated them in his first report to the Security Council in July, after the U.N. World Food Program office in Mosul was attacked and two other incidents in which aid workers had been killed.

"The United Nations presence in Iraq remains vulnerable to any who would seek to target our organization," he said. "Our security continues to rely significantly on the reputation of the United Nations, our ability to demonstrate meaningfully that we are in Iraq to assist its people, and our independence."

Vieira de Mello and his staff took pains to distinguish themselves from the occupying powers and were generally welcomed throughout the country, his colleagues say. U.N. representatives refused to attend meetings about what became the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council, so they wouldn't appear to endorse candidates or the process. Critics said the U.N. should be more involved, carving out a greater role, but Annan preferred an arm's length approach.

Vieira de Mello was able to work with the leaders of the Coalition Provisional Authority as well as around them. He made efforts to travel around the country and meet with religious leaders and community groups the coalition could not, and to ensure that the U.N. flag conferred neutrality and goodwill.

But because coalition soldiers often accompanied U.N. staffers, it was often difficult to separate the two.

There was no clear answer Tuesday about how to better protect U.N. people and keep them from being direct targets -- or proxy ones -- by those who oppose the effort to remake Iraq. The coalition will provide more guards. The U.N. for now, has ruled out sending peacekeepers to protect its own staff.

"We are entirely in their hands," said Fred Eckhard, the U.N. spokesman. "The security of everyone in Iraq -- Iraqis, the nongovernmental humanitarian workers, the U.N. relief workers -- everyone is dependent on the coalition for their security in Iraq."



U.N. casualties

The United Nations released the names of some of the officials killed in Tuesday's bombing of its headquarters in Baghdad.

Sergio Vieira de Mello (Brazil)

Richard Hooper, Department of Public Affairs (U.S.)

Ranillo Buenaventura, humanitarian affairs office

(the Philippines)

Marilyn Manuel, Vieira de Mello's office (the Philippines)

Jean-Selim Kanaan, Vieira de Mello's office (Egypt)

Fiona Watson, Vieira de Mello's office (Britain)

Chris Klein-Beekman, UNICEF (Canada)

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