- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

NEW YORK — U.N. and U.S. officials traded charges yesterday over who was responsible for providing security around the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, where senior U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and at least 19 others were killed in a truck-bomb blast.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard, who was clearly emotional while briefing reporters in New York, laid the blame for the security breakdown squarely on the United States and its allies in the coalition force occupying Iraq.

“We are entirely in their hands,” Mr. Eckhard said. “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.”

But a Defense Department official in Washington said in an interview that U.S. forces “were not providing security for that building” and that “it was the U.N.’s decision not to have forces there providing protection for that building.”

“We did have regular patrols in the area. That was not one of our missions to guard that building,” said the official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified.

Reporters at the scene said the building normally was heavily guarded with security provided mainly by private security forces hired by the United Nations and by a small number of U.S. soldiers stationed nearby.

The U.N. guards routinely checked identification papers, searched bags and patted down visitors. However, the compound is in the middle of a desolate area along a highway, and there are many approaches to the site.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher acknowledged that at least some U.S. troops had been on guard at the three-story former hotel. But he said that the United Nations bore at least some responsibility for its own security.

“I don’t know the exact arrangements at this site, but in addition to all the other security efforts that are made in Baghdad by us, by Iraqis and coalition forces, I think the U.N. does have security people of its own out there,” Mr. Boucher told reporters yesterday.

He said it was too early to know who was responsible for the attack, or what security measures would be taken to prevent future strikes.

Mr. Eckhard yesterday said the United Nations was not blaming the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority for failing to provide adequate protection for the Canal Hotel, nor would he answer reporters’ questions about whether there are sufficient troops on the ground to ensure order in Iraq.

But the labor union representing U.N. staff members yesterday demanded that the organization withdraw from Iraq until minimal safety standards can be put into place.

“The committee demands a full investigation to determine why adequate security was not in place to prevent such a horrifying act,” said the Staff Union in a statement, and called on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to suspend all operations in Iraq and withdraw the more than 640 U.N. employees in the country until security measures are improved.

Baghdad has not been a family posting for U.N. staffers for more than a decade, and the overall threat level was “high 4” on a scale of 1 to 5, according to U.N. officials. But despite repeated warnings about instability in Iraq as a whole, many in New York and Baghdad said yesterday that no one had expected the United Nations operations center itself to be a target.

“We didn’t expect to have to worry so much,” U.N. spokesman Salim Lone told BBC Radio from Baghdad yesterday morning. “We are humanitarians.”

The attack was denounced as a war crime by human rights groups, who say that civilian buildings, such as the U.N. compound, are not legitimate targets even in a guerrilla war. That is one reason why U.N. officials may have wanted to minimize a visible U.S. military presence on the site.

“The people in the U.N. building are civilians; they do not belong to armed forces or any parties to the conflict,” said Wilder Tayler, the legal adviser to Human Rights Watch. “Under the terms of international humanitarian law, there is a basic rule, the principle of distinction … between civilians and combatants. When you target directly civilians, intentionally, that is a war crime.”

Like every other major attack against U.S. and foreign targets in Iraq, no group took responsibility for the Canal Hotel blast. But the attacks on American and international targets have grown increasingly sophisticated, leading some to speculate that outside forces — possibly even the global terrorist network al Qaeda — could be behind the intensified campaign.

Dia’a Rashwan, an expert on radical Islam at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told the Associated Press in London yesterday that the attack fits “the ideology of al Qaeda. They consider the U.N. one of the international actors who helped the Americans to occupy Palestine and, later, Iraq.”

U.N. officials said they would conduct their own investigation into the attack, independent of U.S. inquiries.

A tall concrete wall had been under construction around the perimeter, but it had not yet reached the corner of the building closest to the nearby highway, where Mr. Vieira de Mello’s office was located.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell condemned the bombing as “a heinous crime against the international community and against the Iraqi people.”

• Rowan Scarborough in Washington and Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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