- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

NEW YORK — Former President Bill Clinton yesterday praised the United Nations for giving foreign governments a way to contribute to Iraq’s reconstruction outside of U.S.-controlled channels.

“I said I thought it was a very good thing that the international community would have an independent role in raising and investing the money there,” Mr. Clinton told reporters at the United Nations.

Mr. Clinton’s comments came as U.N. officials defended a temporary withdrawal of foreign staff from Baghdad.

Mr. Clinton, who met briefly during the morning with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said he welcomed the creation of a separate fund for Iraq’s donors that is outside the control of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

The Bush administration last week had welcomed the creation of the fund in advance of a donors conference in Madrid, hoping it would make it easier for countries that disapproved of the war to contribute to Iraq’s reconstruction.

But administration officials were less than pleased with a decision to pull the last 20 or so foreign U.N. staffers out of Baghdad for “consultations” despite a private appeal from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to keep them in place.

U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said Mr. Annan decided on the withdrawal in light of a recent surge in violence in the Iraqi capital, including an attack on the Red Cross that has again underlined the risk to humanitarian workers.

Mr. Annan “has asked the small remaining team of international officials in Baghdad to come out temporarily for consultations with people from headquarters, so that we can thoroughly reconsider our operations in Iraq and the security arrangements that we will need if we are to continue working there,” Mrs. Okabe said.

“It does not represent a policy decision to disengage from Iraq,” she stressed.

Bush administration officials reacted mildly in public to the planned withdrawal, which follows evacuations by relief groups such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.

“The U.S. reaction is that we wish people could have full operations there but we understand that they need to take into account the security needs, and we look forward to them returning to full strength and full operations as soon as they can do that,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

“We support their efforts to maintain security for their employees.”

Many aid groups, who have refused to speak publicly about their own security precautions or even their presence in Iraq, are likely to follow the example of the United Nations.

Mr. Boucher declined to say whether Washington had offered additional security to the United Nations or other groups, which have been quietly leaving Baghdad since an explosives-laden ambulance smashed into a barrier outside the ICRC’s headquarters on Monday, killing 10.

The campaign of violence against foreigners has twice targeted the U.N. compound, as well as relief workers in clearly marked vehicles. The attacks have grown in sophistication, and frequently target Iraqis who work with the American-led coalition.

The United Nations has been torn between providing relief programs to the Iraqi people and seeking to appear independent of the U.S.-led occupation.

Mrs. Okabe stressed that the organization does not consider its pullout to be an evacuation or a withdrawal, and stressed that relief programs are not being suspended.

Some 40 foreign staffers will remain in the predominantly Kurdish northern areas, which so far have been relatively stable.

Officials were reluctant to say how programs would be affected by the relocation of foreign staff. Most of the U.N. aid efforts are carried out by more than 4,000 Iraqi nationals, who are expected to carry on.

The largest single project is winding down the 7-year-old oil-for-food program, which will be taken over by the Coalition Provisional Authority on Nov. 21. More than 20 million Iraqis rely on that program for basic food rations.

U.S. officials have been in constant contact with their U.N. counterparts, according to both sides. Mr. Powell has repeatedly asked Mr. Annan to maintain and even expand the organization’s presence in Iraq, which Washington agreed to marginally strengthen in a Security Council resolution earlier this month.

The details of the withdrawal have apparently not been finalized, with Mr. Annan expected to discuss security matters today at a private daylong meeting with the heads of agencies, funds and programs.

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