- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2003

BAGHDAD — The blue flak jacket is heavy and cumbersome, and Roger Guarda frets uncomfortably as he pulls it off his torso. “It’s hot and I’m choking,” grumbles the new head of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Baghdad.

“But because the U.N. is now a target in Iraq, we have to wear these things every time we leave the office.”

Freed of his body armor, Mr. Guarda gets down to business. But instead of heading into the field to survey the array of job programs, park rehabilitation and electricity generation projects that the UNDP oversees, he stays close to his desk, playing “phone tag” with colleagues in Jordan and beyond.

“The work I used to complete in one day, I now do in four days,” he says. “Since I started this job, all I focus on is security.”

The foreign ministers of the U.N. Security Council’s permanent meeting in Geneva fell short of resolving differences over the U.N. role in U.S.-occupied Iraq.

The Bush administration, faced with the huge bills for rebuilding and the daunting challenge of securing the California-sized nation, wants more help from the international community and the United Nations.

But in the wake of the Aug. 19 truck-bomb blast at the U.N. headquarters at the Canal Hotel — an explosion that killed U.N. Iraq envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and at least 22 others — giving Iraqis a hand has become a much more dangerous affair.

Though it vows publicly that it never will abandon Iraq, the United Nations has pulled nearly 340 its of its 400 international staffers out of the country, U.N. officials say.

U.N. offices, once friendly and inviting compared with U.S. military bases and quarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority, have become barricaded fortresses surrounded by concrete and security guards.

Plainclothes U.N. security officials, toting machine guns, have been scouring the residences of U.N. employees, ordering the few remaining staffers to remain in their hotels at night and turning the once-coveted Baghdad assignment into virtual house arrest.

Several officials requesting anonymity say a plan under discussion would move all of the U.N. staffers out of their hotels and into tents on the grounds of the Canal Hotel.

U.N. staffers complain that maintaining contact with and assessing the needs of the Iraqi population, much less delivering services, have become increasingly difficult.

But Mr. Guarda, 62, a Belgian of Italian descent, deems it important to keep some presence in Baghdad, even if just to lift the people’s spirits.

“It is important that Iraqis do not feel abandoned,” he says. “The U.N. is like a big brother to Iraq. It’s important that people don’t feel like the big brother is leaving them.”

U.N. leaders often say that reducing and constraining international staff won’t affect U.N. operations here because the local Iraqi employees still can do their jobs.

But even Iraqi U.N. employees say new security rules complicate their tasks.

Aziz Ahmad, a talented Iraqi UNDP engineer, used to hop into two-vehicle convoys and travel from his northern Iraq base in Erbil to the Baghdad office at will.

Now, he must find a rare U.N. flight between the two cities. “The road is regarded as too dangerous,” Mr. Ahmad says. “It’s very frustrating because our job is fieldwork.”

The still-unsolved Aug. 19 car bombing was the most spectacular but not the only attack on the United Nations in Iraq.

Several assaults against the distinctive U.N. vehicles and installations had ratcheted up security precautions in the country. Like in Afghanistan and other global hot spots, U.N. staffers often griped about the curfews and traveling rules they were ordered to obey.

But the Aug. 19 attack — unprecedented in its carnage, audacity and impact — was on a wholly different scale.

“It was the most horrible incident that happened to the U.N. in its history,” says Veronique Taveau, spokeswoman for the U.N. humanitarian operations coordinator.

Now, only the most dedicated U.N. veterans are taking on the Iraq assignment.

Mr. Guarda, a U.N. globe-trotter since he was 24, has worked in Cambodia, Panama, Malaysia, Zaire, Cuba, Burkina Faso and the Palestinian territories. Though past retirement age, he felt obligated to volunteer for Iraq after his predecessor and friend, Henrik Kolstrup, was seriously wounded in the attack.

“I was shocked,” says Mr. Guarda, who was finishing up an assignment in Erbil and about to head to New York when the blast occurred. “I love the U.N. family.”

The work day of a U.N. staffer has become longer and more dreary. Mr. Guarda spends this day setting up a “virtual office” so employees evacuated to Amman, Jordan, and Beirut can speak with those in the Baghdad office and those ordered to work from home.

“You try to work as if the team were complete, but obviously it’s a lot more complicated,” he says.

U.N. involvement in Iraq intensified after the oil-for-food program was implemented in the late 1990s.

The program allowed Iraq, then under the strict economic sanctions, to sell limited amounts of its oil reserves to provide revenue for its humanitarian needs so long as the United Nations oversaw the money. Each Iraqi received a food ration.

Iraq’s war-damaged infrastructure was patched up. The United Nations, which opposed the U.S. decision to go to war against Iraq, evacuated all of its international staff and curtailed operations in March before the bombing began.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide