- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2003

NEW YORK — Dozens of nonessential personnel were based at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad when a truck bomb exploded last month, an apparent violation of the organization’s own rules for staffing in dangerous situations.

The United Nations had 308 staff members stationed in Baghdad on Aug. 19, when a bomb blew up outside the Canal Hotel complex, killing 23 and injuring nearly 100.

But the U.N. security coordinator had assessed Iraq to be a “phase four” duty posting, which under the organization’s own guidelines allows for the presence of only “essential personnel,” such as those directly involved in emergency humanitarian programs.

During phase four, nonessential international staff are to be relocated outside the country, says the U.N.-published handbook “Security in the Field: Information for Staff Members of the United Nations System.” Locally hired employees are to be used as supplementary staff.

U.N. officials remain reluctant to say why scores of logistics, economic and program advisers — in addition to spokesmen and administrative staffers — were based in Baghdad at the time of the blast. All but 67 of them have since been moved to safer countries in the region.

“It depends on how you define ‘essential,’” said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard, noting that 17 U.N.-related agencies, funds and programs were active in Iraq. “Everyone wanted their staff there.”

The World Food Program, which has the largest staff in Iraq, has scaled back from 172 foreign nationals in Iraq before the blast to fewer than 62 today.

“Clearly, there was a justification at the time, for the need to have them there,” said WFP’s New York spokesman, Trevor Rowe. “We’re sensitive to security issues. In phase four, you still operate, it’s not an evacuation.”

The U.N. Security Coordinator Office has refused to discuss the Iraq bombing, referring inquiries to Mr. Eckhard.

Tun Myat, chief of the office, has since returned to Iraq to conduct a “preliminary” security review, but U.N. officials say it likely will not be made public.

The U.N. Staff Union, which represents U.N. employees on workplace issues, has demanded an independent inquiry, and made the unprecedented request that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan close down the Iraq operation until safety can be better assured.

The organization clearly believes that staffers in Iraq are still in jeopardy. Mr. Annan last week dispatched his longtime assistant, Iqbal Riza, to Iraq to buck up morale, but the trip was not formally announced until he was safely out of the country. When word leaked out about the visit, reporters were implored not to print his itinerary for safety reasons.

U.N. officials say a formal inquiry is to be undertaken soon. Mr. Annan has decided to appoint a “prominent political figure” to head the team, which will include security specialists.

He could announce a decision as early as this week, U.N. sources said.

Mr. Annan met with U.N. humanitarian coordinators and Red Cross representatives in Geneva on Friday to discuss safety measures necessary for continued relief operations in Iraq.

“We need to find a way to maximize the contribution we are making to the people of Iraq, while minimizing the risk to our staff,” Mr. Annan said in a statement. “It is also important that any humanitarian assistance must be seen as being independent, impartial from military or political processes.”

Robert Malley, Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group, said the United Nations had been eager to perform well in Iraq. “The U.N. had been marginalized before the war, and I think they wanted to prove they were still relevant, indispensable,” he said.

Indeed, Sergio Vieira de Mello, Mr. Annan’s personal representative in Iraq, had a staff of more than two dozen, including advisers and specialists.

The charismatic Brazilian diplomat was killed by the blast, which took place directly below his office.

The United Nations has maintained development and assistance programs in Iraq for decades, but the organization has been especially active since the 1991 Gulf war.

International weapons inspectors were responsible for finding and destroying prohibited weapons of mass destruction.

At the same time, hundreds of foreign staffers were deployed throughout Iraq to administer the devilishly complex “oil-for-food” program, the sole source of nutrition for 60 percent of the country’s 23 million citizens.

Overlapping programs sought to repair schools, rebuild the antiquated electrical grid and water system, and offer skills training to women.

“We had no idea we would be a target,” murmured a bloodied Salim Lone, a spokesman for Mr. Vieira de Mello, hours after the fatal blast.

That, some say, was part of the problem.

The security situation in Baghdad had deteriorated, with widespread postwar optimism melting as the summer heat spiked and residents coped with persistent shortages of electricity, water and gasoline.

Without a functioning police force or Iraqi army, U.S. soldiers were unable to keep peace. Anti-Ba’athist looting quickly gave way to professional sabotage and street crime. By late June, foreign civilians, including journalists and relief workers, had become inviting targets.

In the weeks before the U.N. bombing, there had been numerous assaults on relief workers and hijacking of their supply trucks.

A leading Iraqi-American businessman told The Washington Times last month that he and others who were cooperating with the U.S.-led coalition had received a series of written warnings of an attack days before the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

The Canal Hotel, which housed the U.N. headquarters, was not mentioned by name, but the letter did refer to other sites used by foreign nationals, as well as by Iraqis cooperating with the coalition, said Rubar Sandi, who has visited Iraq three times since the war.

U.N. personnel were acutely aware of the increasingly tense situation: There were strict rules about convoy safety, including provisions to have an Arab speaker in every car.

Curfews confined international staffers to their hotels after dark, although some braved unlighted streets to visit restaurants or the pool at a nearby hotel.

U.N. officials say they coordinated with U.S. soldiers on security issues, even as they rejected a large military cordon of American troops around the headquarters that might scare off Iraqi citizens.

The organization has long refused to discuss security issues, and has a policy of not publicly endorsing parties in a conflict.

Stewart Stogel contributed to this article.

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