As grief at the devastating destruction of the United Nations compound in Baghdad cascaded through the organization's headquarters today, a few officials and diplomats began to raise troubling questions about the incident.
Was the United Nations trying to do too much with too little support — and particularly, too little security? And why has what one official called its "moral shield" become so porous? Excluding peacekeepers, about 240 civilian United Nations workers have died in the line of duty since 1992 in places from Rwanda and East Timor to Somalia and Kosovo.
But there were more questions than easy answers. And there was a strong public reaction to continue the humanitarian and political outreach of Sergio Vieira de Mello, one of at least 17 civilian United Nations workers to perish in the blast.
"Clearly, what has happened is going to oblige us to take stock," said Shashi Tharoor, the under secretary general for public information. "We are going to want to review our presence in Iraq. But the secretary general has made it clear that it would be a betrayal of Sergio not to continue what he lived for. So there is a reasonable prospect that we will continue, but we will have to review the size of our presence and the way it is deployed."
Earlier, Syria's deputy ambassador, Fayssal Mekdad, speaking in the role of Security Council president, said "such terrorist incidents cannot break the will of the international community to further intensify its efforts to help the people of Iraq." And the secretary general, Kofi Annan, said, "Nothing can excuse this act of unprovoked and murderous violence against men and women who went to Iraq for one purpose only: to help the Iraqi people recover their independence and sovereignty, and to rebuild their country as fast as possible under leaders of their own choosing."
Mark Malloch Brown, the under secretary general for development, spoke for many at headquarters when he voiced a sense of betrayal, saying: "We do this out of vocation. We are apolitical. We were there to help the people of Iraq and help them return to self-government. Why us?"
He added, "This is another blow at the neutrality and the impartiality of the U.N. flag. Not since Count Bernadotte has a United Nations operation and its chief been targeted in this way." He was referring to the 1948 assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish nobleman trying to mediate between Israelis and Arabs, who was killed by Jewish radicals from the Stern gang.
The existence of murderous opposition, Mr. Malloch Brown said, leaves United Nations officials with a bitter choice: increase security markedly and decrease the ease of interaction between United Nations personnel and the Iraqis they are pledged to help, or continue a policy of openness with an unacceptable risk of casualties.
"Even before this, there was concern" about security, he said. "But there was also a desire to operate as normally as possible, not live within a perimeter of guns and barbed wire. The United Nations is a people organization. If we lose that thread, if that gets cut, it's more than an umbilical cord. It's at the core of the trust and legitimacy and moral authority of the blue flag."
For many at headquarters, the question was premature as the flags of the member nations were taken down, leaving the light-blue United Nations flag alone at half-mast in front of the building. Inside headquarters, both on the 18th floor of the main building and across the way in the offices of the oil for food program, workers were scrambling to get through to Baghdad on uncertain cellphone lines and to collect whatever information was available on the 300 or so staff members in the building.
In the lobby, Micheline Sevan, the wife of Benon Sevan, the under secretary in charge of oil for food, was greeted by a swarm of United Nations staffers who knew her husband had been in the Canal Hotel. "He's all right," she repeated, saying she had just talked to him. He had just left his office to go into another office for a briefing, she said. After the blast, she added, nothing was left of her husband's office.
In the offices of the Staff Union, which represents United Nations personnel, sorrow was mixed with anger at the security situation. The group called on the United Nations "to suspend all operations in Iraq and withdraw its staff until such time as measures are taken to improve security."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company