U.N. employees' fears grew as security deteriorated in Baghdad

Friday, August 29, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Even before the fatal bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Iraq, anxiety was growing among its staff as the summer wore on and security deteriorated, U.N. officials said.

A U.N. World Food Program had come under grenade attack July 6 in the northern city of Mosul, killing an Iraqi driver. Two weeks later, assailants attacked a Red Cross vehicle, killing an aid worker from Sri Lanka and wounding the Iraqi driver.

A security plan to fortify the world body's operations in Iraq had been sent to the New York headquarters, where it was awaiting approval at the time of the Aug. 19 suicide truck bombing, said a senior U.N. official, who like other U.N. employees contacted by The Associated Press would speak only on condition of anonymity.

But a suicide attack of that magnitude had not been envisioned. And even if the world body had implemented the planned security measures before the bombing, the steps would not have protected the Canal Hotel from the sort of massive explosion that sheared off a side of the three-story building, killing at least 23 people and wounding more than 100, he said.

The official said events in Baghdad "were beyond what anyone expected."

According to a U.N. official in New York, it would be reasonable that a decision on a security issue would take days or weeks. "It's a big organization, and there are a lot of missions out there," the official said.

After the attack, which was unprecedented in the history of the organization, the United Nations sped up planned security projects in the Iraqi capital and ordered an overall review, the senior U.N. official in Baghdad said. Barricades have been placed across streets at the headquarters and satellite offices in Baghdad to prevent open vehicle access.

On Tuesday, 5,000 U.N. employees participated in silent marches in Geneva and New York. The U.N. Staff Union said it organized them to mourn those killed and to demand "a full and independent investigation" into security at the Baghdad offices.

"We don't speak about security at all. There is an investigation going on," said Veronique Taveau, a U.N. spokeswoman in Baghdad. Other U.N. staff say they had been forbidden to speak to reporters on the issue.

Before the attack, some 30 U.S. soldiers watched the outside of the U.N. compound. A high, concrete wall had recently been constructed around the hotel, but because of property lines, it was -- in some places -- not far from the building itself.

The wall was only about 20 feet from the office of chief envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, who died in the attack. The truck carrying the bomb was parked there.

The Iraq mission had what the U.N. calls a security management team, which includes a security officer from each U.N. agency in Iraq -- some of whom are former U.S. or Western military officers. In addition to the security representatives, the team includes the heads of each agency and the resident coordinator. These officials meet at least once a week to make assessments and recommendations, which are sent to U.N. headquarters.

Despite the attack, a U.N. official said the organization would not ask for more U.S. soldiers to guard the building because it did not want to appear to be operating out of an American-protected fortress.

"The presence of coalition forces does intimidate some of the people we need to speak to and work with," said Ramiro Lopes da Silva, acting head of the U.N. mission.

The work to bolster security after the attack followed the U.N. announcement that it was moving more than a third of its work force in Iraq to Jordan and Cyprus. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have temporarily pulled out.

U.N. employees who were evacuated to Jordan had a heated, closed-door meeting Sunday with top U.N. executives at the Amman office, according to an employee who attended the meeting.

"They wanted to know why they were kept in Baghdad despite a heightened U.N. threat alert, which should have allowed for suspending operations and evacuating staff from Iraq," the employee said.

Guy Candusso, an officer in the U.N. Staff Union, said it is clear from talks with people who were in Baghdad that "something definitely was lacking" when it came to security.

"That's why we think an independent investigation is needed," he said.

U.N. staff want to know the security assessment for the United Nations' Baghdad operation and what was done after the Jordanian Embassy bombing earlier in the month.

At the time of the attack, the United Nations was operating in Iraq under "Phase IV" security status, one level below the highest, a staff member in New York said. Phase IV calls for the withdrawal of all nonessential staff from the country, a staff member in New York said.

The London-based aid organization Oxfam has since withdrawn its international staff from Iraq, and other non-governmental organizations were considering similar moves. On Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was scaling back its expatriate staff after receiving warnings the organization might be a target.

International organizations are viewed with skepticism -- and sometimes hostility -- in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein's regime spent 12 years preaching that the United Nations was responsible for much of Iraq's daily misery. The crippling international sanctions imposed by the world body after Saddam invaded Kuwait 12 years ago were blamed for everything from high infant mortality rates to a ban on ice cream.

The U.S. military's aid efforts add to the confusion when Iraqis see soldiers with assault rifles handing out food and school books previously associated with unarmed relief organizations.

"I think there's been a blurring of humanitarian and military operations in Iraq. It's setting a very dangerous precedent," said Simon Springlett, Oxfam's Iraq program coordinator.

Besides the July attacks on U.N. and Red Cross workers, aid groups had told of residents throwing stones at them in Tikrit, and robberies and carjackings were reported regularly, said Hanno Schaefer, a spokesman for Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief agency.

"I think it was very clear to the international community that there was going to be an attack, but we never anticipated the scale or devastation of the attack on the U.N. building," Springlett said.

The regular weekly relief coordination meetings attended by relief agency representatives and U.N. staff have been suspended "because it's not safe to meet," Schaefer said. The last meeting was on the eve of the U.N. bombing.

U.N. managers still in Iraq worry about what form a new attack might take and have instructed security workers to check buildings nearby, fearing a rocket-propelled grenade could target them, the senior U.N. official said, looking out his window.

"There is only one word for the security situation in Iraq: Unpredictable," he said. But he added: "We can't move around in tanks."

Associated Press reporters Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this story.

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