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U.N. Official Fired in Iraq Lapses

Annan ousts his security chief and demotes a deputy in response to a scathing report on the Aug. 19 Baghdad blast.

March 30, 2004|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Secretary-General Kofi Annan fired the U.N.'s security coordinator and demoted another official Monday for failing to take adequate precautions before the August bombing of its Baghdad headquarters that killed 22 people.

Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette, who headed a committee that decided to send U.N. staff members back to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion, tendered her resignation. But Annan refused to accept it, citing the "collective nature of the failures" of the committee.

Annan's actions came in response to the findings of an accountability report released Monday that harshly criticized U.N. officials for failing to recognize and address the growing risks for their personnel in Baghdad.

The report stated that the security coordinator, Tun Myat, was "blinded by the conviction that U.N. personnel and installations would not become a target of attack, despite the clear warnings to the contrary." A failure to take preventive measures demonstrated "lethargy bordering on gross negligence," the report said.

Annan fired Myat and demoted Ramiro Lopes da Silva, who was in charge of U.N. security in Iraq. Lopes da Silva, now on temporary assignment in central Africa, will be allowed to return to a post with the World Food Program but won't be entrusted with security matters again, said Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard.

Two other officials who failed to install blast-resistant film on the windows of the Baghdad headquarters -- a measure that might have saved lives and prevented injuries from flying glass -- were accused of misconduct and will face disciplinary action. About 90% of injuries in the blast were attributed to flying glass, the report said.

The Aug. 19 bombing, which killed top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and much of his staff and wounded more than 150 others, profoundly shook the world body. The attack led to the withdrawal of nearly all international U.N. staff members from the country, and the U.N. has yet to return a permanent team to Iraq to assist with aid efforts and electoral preparations. Instead, temporary teams have been sent in from bases in Cyprus and Jordan.

The 150-page report, the work of a four-person panel chaired by Gerald Walzer, former deputy high commissioner for refugees, was surprisingly scathing, and Annan's response to it unusual. High-ranking staff members are rarely disciplined in such a public manner. Annan commissioned the report to focus on individual officials' responsibility after an initial assessment of the U.N.'s security failings had called its system to protect staffers "dysfunctional."

But some at the U.N. thought that both reports were a "whitewash" that singled out Myat and Lopes da Silva, plus Vieira de Mello, for blame and assigned "collective responsibility" to the rest. The Walzer report exculpated Annan, saying that he merely accepted the security team's assessment and the conclusions of the Steering Group on Iraq, the committee chaired by Frechette.

"That is what we call U.N. accountability," said Guy Candusso, second vice president of the U.N. staff union. "Twenty-two are dead, and all these guys get to retire with their pensions. The role of senior U.N. officials has not been accounted for."

The two security reports have prompted an organization-wide review of how to assess and address potential risks for U.N. workers entering conflict zones. Officials from the peacekeeping department now must pass a security exam before going into the field, and less risk will be tolerated for humanitarian workers.

The Walzer report details the technical deficiencies of the security system and an indistinct chain of command. It describes the frustration of security officers in Baghdad when their warnings of a growing threat were ignored by Myat, Lopes da Silva and Vieira de Mello.

But the document does not reflect the division of opinion within the United Nations about how far the U.N. should go to provide aid to people in conflict zones.

Although a vocal group of staffers had demanded the withdrawal of personnel from Iraq before the August bombing, a handful of veterans argued that it was better for the U.N. to maintain a symbolic presence in conflict zones to demonstrate solidarity with the people they were supposed to be serving.

In Iraq, the U.N. made a great effort to maintain an identity separate from the U.S.-led occupation and sought to remain accessible to the public -- good intentions that may have proved fatal.

The report details how Myat, the security coordinator, asked the U.S. command to remove most American troops guarding the U.N. headquarters.

Both Myat and Lopes da Silva went on temporary leave late last year while the investigations took place. The Walzer panel submitted its report March 3, but Annan did not publicly release it or announce his disciplinary actions until Monday.

Annan "regretted the failure identified by the panel and expressed his determination to take all corrective measures, within his authority, to enhance the safety and security of all U.N. staff, especially those deployed in dangerous conflict areas," his spokesman said.

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