UNITED NATIONS - U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's decision to withdraw his staff from Baghdad over U.S. objections could deal another body blow to the U.S.-led military occupation of the increasingly dangerous, war-ravaged nation.
U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe told reporters Thursday the move is only a ''temporary relocation'', and insisted that it did not represent a policy decision to ''disengage'' from Iraq.
Since the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August, the United Nations has reduced its international staff from 300-500 to 60, of whom 20 are now in Baghdad and 40 in northern Iraq.
The United Nations is withdrawing its international staff from Baghdad to consult on the security situation in the Iraqi capital, a spokeswoman said on October 30, 2003. The decision follows Monday's car bomb attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross, in which 12 people, including two ICRC guards, were killed. The UN had already reduced its presence in Iraq following a massive bomb blast at its Baghdad headquarters in August which killed 22 people. A U.S. helicopter is seen over United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in this September 22 file photo. (Aladin Abdel Naby/Reuters)
The Baghdad employees are now being relocated to Larnaca, Cyprus for ''consultation'', according to Okabe.
There was widespread speculation here Thursday that the staff members in northern Iraq will soon follow.
Although the majority of U.N. employees in Iraq were ''temporarily relocated'' to Jordan after the bombing, they have not yet returned to the country.
The staffers, who were pulled out because of security concerns, were working for several U.N. agencies, including the World Food Program (WFP), the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP).
Annan has been under heavy pressure both from in and outside the United Nations to ensure the safety of staffers and defend the credibility of an organization dismissed by some, particularly in the Middle East, as a political mouthpiece of the United States.
The 'Washington Post' reported Thursday that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a series of phone conversations, had pleaded with Annan to continue to maintain a U.N. presence in Iraq.
Powell expressed fears that a pullout by the United Nations would trigger an exodus of the remaining humanitarian workers representing organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Médecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) and Oxfam.
''They are needed. Their work is needed. And if they are driven out, then the terrorists win,'' Powell told reporters Wednesday.
The U.N. compound in Baghdad has been attacked twice, with the first suicide bombing on Aug. 19 claiming the lives of 22 staffers, including Under-Secretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello, who headed U.N. operations in Iraq.
At least 150 were injured in the bombing, many severely. A second attack on the U.N. compound took place Sep. 22, unnerving U.N. staffers further. The ICRC attack on Monday claimed the lives of over 20 people, mostly Iraqis.
Since May 1, when President George W. Bush declared that major combat in Iraq was over, 117 U.S. soldiers have also been killed in guerrilla attacks in various part of Iraq. This figure is over and above the 114 U.S. troops killed during the U.S.-led attack on Iraq in March and April.
Last week, a four-member independent panel probing the car bombing of the U.N. compound concluded that the U.N. security management system was so ''dysfunctional'' that it provides little or no protection for staff members either in Iraq or in other high-risk U.N. missions and peacekeeping operations worldwide.
''The United Nations has become the target of armed elements that are ready to use terror tactics to inflict damages to the organization,'' the panel said. ''A new strategy on security must be developed to face this and other high-risk environments.''
Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president and head of the panel, told reporters that U.N. staffers who have dedicated themselves as humanitarian workers and peacekeepers overseas do not want to work out of ''bunkers''.
''If the security situation is bad, they should not be there,'' he added. ''They cannot work under a bunker mentality.''
Immediately after the first bombing of the U.N. compound, the Staff Council's Standing Committee on the Security and Independence of the International Civil Service urged Annan to withdraw all employees from Iraq unless they were provided a secure environment to work.
''The report of the independent panel is a damning indictment of the organization's attitude towards the security of its staff,'' the committee said in a statement.
On Thursday, committee spokesman Guy Candusso told IPS that Annan's decision ''only proves what we have said earlier: Iraq is too dangerous a place for U.N. staffers. We are glad the Secretary-General took this decision.''
In mid-October, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a U.S.-sponsored resolution that called for an increased humanitarian role for the United Nations in Iraq. But Annan said then he was not prepared to send international employees under current security conditions.
The resolution also called for foreign troops for a U.N.-mandated multinational force to relieve the military pressure on the besieged 130,000 U.S. soldiers battling a guerrilla war in Iraq. It also sought increased funds from international donors for the reconstruction of Iraq.
At a donor conference in Madrid last week, the United States was able to get only about 13 billion dollars in pledges, mostly in the form of repayable loans, out of a targeted 56 billion dollars. Even the U.S. contribution of 20 billion dollars was cut Wednesday to about 18.6 billion dollars, by a key congressional committee.
The resolution has also failed to produce any firm commitments from foreign countries about providing troops for the proposed multinational force.
''It's obvious the resolution, which was unanimously adopted because of strong-arm tactics by the United States, has failed on both counts,'' an Asian diplomat told IPS.
Asked whether the suicide bombings and the attacks on U.S. forces would deter foreign nations, U.S. President George W. Bush told reporters Tuesday: ''I hope not.''
''That's what terrorists want. They want countries to say, 'Oh gosh, we better not send anybody there because someone might get hurt'.''
Copyright 2003 Inter Press Service