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U.N. Envoy Is Honored at a Memorial in Iraq

As the bombing victim is remembered, talk turns to boosting security at the Baghdad compound.

August 23, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell and Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — As tearful mourners bade farewell Friday to slain U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, U.S. investigators completed their on-scene investigation of the blast that killed him and moved on to interviewing U.N. staffers and witnesses.

"We'd like to talk to as many people as we can -- workers, neighbors, possible witnesses," said Thomas Fuentes, who heads an FBI team in Iraq investigating the truck bombing that devastated the U.N. compound here Tuesday, killing more than 20 people. "You have to interview everybody."

Fuentes and other officials involved in the investigation declined to comment on reports that the attackers might have had inside information or that security personnel at the compound might have aided the plotters and possibly pinpointed the location of Vieira de Mello's office. Many of the U.N. guards were holdovers from the Saddam Hussein regime, which was known to place undercover security agents in those positions.

In New York, Vieira de Mello's former bodyguard said the location of the Brazilian envoy's office was well known. Part of the diplomat's job was to meet with Iraqi leaders, clerics and regular citizens, and he played host to hundreds of people at the office, including those who opposed the U.S.-led occupation.

"Everybody knew where Sergio's office was," said Gamal Ibrahim, the head of Vieira de Mello's security detail until he returned to New York this month.

"It was like Grand Central Station. Inside job or outside job, it happened outside the gate of the compound. Nobody let them in."

In the wake of the bombing, the U.N. has faced strong questioning over security at the compound. A U.N. assessment team was on its way to Iraq, but top officials are already saying security enhancements are inevitable, despite their stated desire not to run a humanitarian mission from behind barbed wire and tanks.

"There's no doubt that we will have to strengthen our security," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in New York on Friday, adding that the world body would seek assistance from the U.S.-led coalition. "We may have to adjust our ways of operating on the ground."

Ibrahim agreed that security would probably be tightened after the team's visit. "That may be one good thing that comes out of this," he said. "It may bring changes that will save people's lives in the future."

At the late-afternoon memorial service for Vieira de Mello at the Baghdad airport, colleague Benon Sevan recalled that even after the blast, when the wounded envoy was pinned beneath rubble in his office, he was thinking of his work in Iraq. He told a rescuer, "Don't let them pull the mission out."

"Sergio was fully committed to the United Nations until his last breath," said Sevan, who heads the U.N.'s "oil-for-food" program in Iraq.

Other mourners, including the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, and members of the Iraqi Governing Council, paid their last respects to the veteran diplomat, who had worked in trouble spots including Kosovo and East Timor before arriving in Iraq in June.

"We will not be deterred by any act of terrorism," an emotional Bremer said. "The rebuilding of Iraq by Iraqi people will go on. It's not going to be stopped by this act or any such act."

Pallbearers hoisted the coffin, draped in the pale-blue flag of the United Nations, into a waiting Brazilian air force jet, as a pair of military musicians played the bagpipes.

Members of Vieira de Mello's family were to board the aircraft in Geneva to accompany the remains to Brazil. Vieira de Mello will later be buried in France.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon denied a claim aired by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. that two U.S. soldiers had been captured Monday in a battle west of Baghdad.

The station aired photos of U.S. identification documents purportedly belonging to the soldiers and a statement from a previously unknown group claiming to have captured the Americans in a firefight. The group's statement appeared to be designed to portray the Iraqi opposition as well organized and extensive.

The soldiers named as abductees -- a major from Pennsylvania and a captain from Louisiana -- are accounted for, the Pentagon said. One of the officers had been wounded in an attack in Iraq and lost his identification, the officials said.

In northern Iraq, residents of Halabja said they would press occupation authorities to put Ali Hassan Majid -- a cousin of Hussein who earned the nickname "Chemical Ali" for using poison gas to kill 5,000 Kurds in the town in 1988 -- on trial in their region. News of his capture by U.S. forces was made public Thursday.

"The best revenge for the people of Halabja is for him to be held accountable for his crimes through a fair trial," said Nuraldeen Abdullah, 32, a mason helping to build a mosaic at the entrance to a new museum dedicated to the gassing victims.

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