U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that the violence and anarchy sweeping Iraq will prevent the world body from re-establishing a major presence in the country anytime in the near future.
Mr. Annan also deplored the kidnapping of civilians in Iraq, many of whom were trying to rebuild the nation, and called for their release.
"I think it's unacceptable that these civilians should be mistreated in the way that they are now. I would want to see all of them released and allowed to go about, return to their countries or go about their business," he said.
Mr. Annan also told reporters in New York that the small U.N. team in Iraq, led by top official Lakhdar Brahimi, had been hampered in advising Iraqis on forming an interim government and planning for elections early next year.
"Given the deteriorating situation and the violence on the ground, even that task has been rather difficult," Mr. Annan said.
"For the foreseeable future, insecurity is going to be a major constraint for us. And so I cannot say right now that I am going to be sending in a large U.N. team," he said.
U.S. officials played down the statement, saying a smaller presence might be all that is needed to accomplish important goals.
"It's not a deal killer," said a U.S. official at the United Nations' headquarters, noting that Mr. Annan had voiced concern about the security situation before. "A lot of work can be done in small teams" in Iraq and outside the country, the official said.
There were "important things being done by the United Nations right now without sending in a big U.N. team," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. He acknowledged that as Iraq moved closer to the January 2005 election deadline, larger U.N. teams would be needed.
But Jonathan Tepperman, senior editor at the policy journal Foreign Affairs, said Mr. Annan's decision was "a political blow to the administration, which is anxious to get the U.N. involved because it would give greater international legitimacy to the mission and help the U.S. share the [financial] burden."
The United Nations withdrew its permanent foreign staff from Iraq in October after attacks on aid organizations and the August bombing of its headquarters that killed 22 persons.
Others think that the role of the United Nations in shaping the future of the Iraqi people should be strictly limited anyway, pointing out the organization's failure to call for regime change in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
Although it is important for the United Nations to mediate between leading Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani and the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, the world body "should not be in the driving seat" said Nile Gardiner, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Asked whether, in light of the current tumult, the turnover of power should still occur by June 30, Mr. Annan said there was little choice.
"The date has been out there for some time. It has been embraced by the Iraqis themselves, who are anxious to see the end of occupation as soon as possible, and I believe it is going to be difficult to pull it back," he said.
With Iraq in turmoil and increasing numbers of foreign civilians caught in the cross fire or kidnapped, many nations are urging their citizens to leave the country.
The Czech Republic, which has sent troops to Iraq, called on all nonmilitary citizens to get out as officials tried to locate three Czech journalists who disappeared last week near Fallujah.
Four Italians were reported to be held by a previously unknown Iraqi Islamic group, the Mujahideen Brigades, which demanded that Italy withdraw its forces from Iraq, according to a tape aired by Al Jazeera television.
Kremlin officials advised Russian firms to leave after eight workers at a Russian company were kidnapped and released. Two contractors -- representing the bulk of Russians working in Iraq -- said they planned to pull out.
Romania and Denmark, both of whom have troops helping the U.S.-led occupation, advised citizens to leave. Danish aid organizations said yesterday that they were pulling out their remaining workers in Iraq.
Poland, a U.S. ally leading a multinational army division in central Iraq, said it has advised companies and organizations to postpone plans to go to Iraq.
"As for those who are already in Iraq, we advise extreme caution," a Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman said, according to Reuters news agency.
France and Russia, which opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, also have urged their citizens to leave the country or postpone traveling there. News of the disappearance of a French cameraman came soon after the advisories were issued.
Among others abducted and let go were seven Chinese nationals, a Briton, three Pakistanis, two Turks, an Indian, a Nepalese and a Filipino. Earlier, seven Koreans were kidnapped and released.