- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

Apportioning blame

The United Nations issued a scathing assessment last week of its failure to protect U.N. personnel in Baghdad from an Aug. 19 truck bombing.

The report, commissioned by Secretary-General Kofi Annan under pressure from the U.N. Staff Union, found so much blame to go around that it’s hard to say where the ax might fall.

An independent panel faulted the United Nations’ overlapping security services, the failure of supervisors to follow published safety guidelines, the ambition of agency directors in Iraq, a failure to heed warnings, and a refusal to accept help from U.S. or other soldiers in the occupation coalition.

“The main conclusion of the panel is that the current security-management system is dysfunctional,” wrote chief investigator Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland. “It provides little guarantee of security to U.N. staff in Iraq or other high-risk environments.”

The report makes clear that more precautions and better relations with the U.S. military and civilian authorities might not have prevented the truck bombing, which killed 22 and injured more than 150 U.N. staffers and visitors at the Canal Hotel compound. But if U.N. officials had followed their own rules and taken simple precautions, the damage would have been less, according to the report.

The 40-page tale of negligence, arrogance and incompetence is chilling.

On June 30, for example, security advisers said they could protect a maximum of 200 non-Iraqi staff and urged U.N. programs and agencies to relocate nonessential personnel. But supervisors refused to count and identify their staff, presumably to keep as many in Baghdad as possible.

Officials were asked to issue security clearances to nonessential staff from Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello’s team on down.

At the same time, the U.N. security coordinator at headquarters in New York requested, through the U.S. Mission, that coalition forces pull back from outside the Canal Hotel compound, to make the U.N. offices look less military. No alternative protection was arranged.

Entrances were left unguarded. Staffers were deployed without training. Warnings were ignored. A security barrier under construction was designed to keep out people, not vehicles or bombs. No contingency plan was in place for any catastrophe.

Security officials discussed repeatedly the need for a relatively inexpensive antiblast film to coat the windows in the complex. A World Food Program offer to fund the installation was rejected by the U.N. administration because the world body had begun soliciting bids and proposals.

“On Aug. 19, the windows of the Canal Hotel were still not fitted with the necessary material,” according to the report. “The fragmentation and dispersion of glass resulting from the explosion contributed greatly to the number of casualties.”

The U.N. assessment is uncharacteristically blunt.

Mr. Annan deserves credit for releasing the report, which notes that his office was slow to respond to threats. But that may be about all the credit he gets.

On Friday, a weary-looking Mr. Annan told reporters that he was in no hurry to increase the organization’s foreign staff in Baghdad, currently fewer than two dozen persons.

“Since the two bomb attacks against us, we have had to rethink our own approach and our presence, and that will be a factor in our decision to increase our staff in Iraq,” he said, adding that other U.N. missions also would be under review. The U.N. complex in Baghdad was attacked late last month for the second time.

Mr. Annan — who made an appearance Thursday at the International Donors’ Conference on the Reconstruction of Iraq in Madrid under pressure from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell — was back in New York on Friday morning for the unveiling of a monument to U.N. staff killed in the line of duty.

The Monument to the Fallen, with a small reflecting pool and inscribed glass and stone, is worth a visit to the sculpture garden, which is open to the public. It was funded by the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded jointly to the United Nations and Mr. Annan.

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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