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U.N. to Slash Its Staff in Iraq

Annan cites security concerns for the withdrawal of foreign workers. Powell says a constitution could be ready in six months.

September 26, 2003|Maggie Farley and Robin Wright | Times Staff Writers

UNITED NATIONS — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell expressed optimism Thursday that Iraqis could clear a key hurdle in the reconstruction of their country and develop a constitution within six months, even as the United Nations announced that security conditions were so bad in Iraq that it was pulling out most foreign staffers.

Amid rising sentiment among U.N. Security Council nations that the United States must accelerate the transfer of power back to Iraqi hands, Powell hinted at a timeline for a gradual end to the U.S.-led occupation during a taping Thursday afternoon of CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman."

But news of the U.N. pullout -- which came on the day that a member of the Iraqi Governing Council died of gunshot wounds and a Baghdad hotel housing staff of the NBC network was the target of a bombing -- is a setback for such hopes for a swift political transition.

Powell met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Thursday to discuss how international envoys could guide the constitution's drafting and organize eventual elections. But unless Annan is assured that Iraq is safe enough for his people to work there, no one may be available to handle those tasks.

"We certainly understand [the U.N.'s] concerns and understand their reasons for pursuing a reduction," Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said Thursday. "But they have a vital role to play, and we want them to continue to play that vital role."

In an indication of Annan's concern about the instability in Iraq, the secretary-general announced Thursday that he would pull out most of the U.N.'s remaining international staff in the country after the second fatal attack in five weeks on the organization's Baghdad headquarters.

After an attack Aug. 19 that killed more than 20 people and injured hundreds, Annan cut the number of U.N. workers from 650 to 86.

A gradual withdrawal this week after a bombing near U.N. headquarters Monday that killed an Iraqi guard may leave only a skeleton crew of international staffers behind, and the world body will rely on its 4,232 Iraqi employees to carry out essential humanitarian services, spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

The attack on the hotel that houses NBC's Baghdad bureau and the death of Aqila Hashimi, a member of the unelected Governing Council, five days after she was shot in the abdomen amplified fears of growing insecurity.

Countries that had tentatively offered troops have been backing down, including Turkey, Japan, India and Pakistan.

"The Muslim world is not particularly thrilled with the idea of folks going in to support occupation, as it were," Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri said.

"So what Pakistan really wants is that a situation be created so that we can tell the public in Pakistan that our troops are not going in as occupiers, they are going to help their Muslim brethren. If the Iraqis don't want us, then it will be very difficult."

Annan is said to want a radical change in Iraq to subdue the resentment against the occupation and, in turn, improve security so the U.N. can resume its work. The surest way to pacify attacks on the occupation is to end the occupation, U.N. diplomats say. In discussions with Security Council ambassadors and foreign ministers, Annan has been suggesting an immediate transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis -- at least symbolically -- while allowing coalition forces to handle security to help stabilize the country.

"It would bring the occupation to an end, signal that the coalition is there for liberation, not occupation, and would clarify the relationship for donors who want to contribute to the Iraqis, not the occupation," a senior U.N. official said. "The stakes are so high -- for Iraq and the U.N. -- that we must reexamine the options."

The number of options is growing. Security Council members have floated seven or eight mechanisms to create a provisional government for the country.

Iraqi Governing Council members have suggested using their 1958 constitution as a template to hasten the drafting of a new one.

But senior U.N. diplomats say that the majority of the Security Council agrees -- after watching the U.S. go to war without U.N. backing, then struggle with the increasingly chaotic aftermath -- that the U.S. can't dictate the terms any longer if it wants substantive help in stabilizing Iraq.

Serious debate started this month in Geneva, where Annan had summoned the foreign ministers of the Security Council's five permanent members -- the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia -- to hash out the next steps for Iraq.

France and the United States were surprised by the number of governments with strong ideas, including China, which is typically silent on Iraq, a U.N. diplomat at the meeting said.

There is growing momentum behind the idea of creating a powerful provisional government, such as the one in Afghanistan, that is capable of signing treaties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.N. as well as commercial agreements.

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