Even before that awful bomb ripped through our Baghdad headquarters on August 19 2003, taking the lives of 22 of my colleagues, the UN mission in Iraq had already become marginal to the epic crisis being played out there. Iraq had become the center of both the US war on terror and the war between the extremities of two civilizations. The vicious terrorist attack a year ago today surprised no one working for Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN secretary general's special representative. Indeed, the UN chiefs of communication in Iraq had met that morning to hammer out a plan to counter the intensifying perception among Iraqis that our mission was simply an adjunct of the US occupation.
Little did the Iraqis know that the reality was quite the opposite: by August, the UN mission had grown very distant from the Americans. The intense early relationship that Sergio, the world's most brilliant negotiator of post-conflict crises, had fashioned with Paul Bremer, the US proconsul, had already fractured. Contact was intermittent now that Bremer's coalition provisional authority (CPA) could deal directly with the Iraqis whom it had appointed, with Sergio's help, to the governing council. General dismay over occupation tactics aside, Sergio had already parted company with Bremer over key issues such as the need for electoral affirmation of a new constitution, and the arrest and conditions of detention of the thousands imprisoned at Abu Ghraib prison.
The low point came at the end of July last year, when, astonishingly, the US blocked the creation of a fully fledged UN mission in Iraq. Sergio believed that this mission was vital and had thought the CPA also supported it. Clearly, the Bush administration had eagerly sought a UN presence in occupied Iraq as a legitimizing factor rather than as a partner that could mediate the occupation's early end, which we knew was essential to averting a major conflagration.
Sergio had nevertheless continued to squeeze whatever mileage he could from what he called the "constructive ambiguity" of a terrible postwar security council resolution; one that sent UN staff into the Iraqi cauldron without giving them even a minimal level of independence or authority. It is not an exaggeration to say that it was this resolution that rang the death knell for the UN in Iraq. Having heroically resisted American pressure to authorize the war, security council members decided to show goodwill to the "victors". "A step too far" was how an Iraqi put it to me on my second day in Baghdad.
He said that even those who had grown accustomed to the double standards the security council employed in punishing Iraqis for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, while acquiescing to a quarter-century of Israeli occupation of Arab lands, were horrified that it could legitimize an unprovoked war that the entire world had clamorously opposed. Many Iraqis were also furious that the UN did not raise its voice against brutal occupation tactics, unaware that custom and diplomacy dictated that UN officials say little in public that would offend the world's most powerful state.
But by mid-August, a restless and discouraged Sergio had begun to breach the protocol. Two days before the bombing, he told a Brazilian journalist that Iraqis felt humiliated by the occupation, asking him how Brazilians would feel if foreign tanks were patrolling Rio de Janeiro's thoroughfares. And on the day of the bombing, Sergio was going to issue a statement criticizing the killing by US soldiers of the Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana as he filmed an incident outside Abu Ghraib prison. That statement saved my life. Sergio asked me to add additional information about other unlawful killings, which made me miss the 4pm meeting that was the target of that attack. Six of the seven participants were killed, and the seventh lost both legs and an arm.
August 19 2003 is a pivotal moment UN history, not merely because of the unprecedented viciousness of the attack, but because of the lack of an Iraqi, Arab and Muslim outcry over the atrocity. This near silence exposed the depths to which the organization's standing had sunk in the Middle East a result of its inability to contain or even condemn the militaristic excesses of US and Israeli policies in the post-9/11 period. The UN is generally considered to be too willing to do the US's bidding, and its rare challenge on the Iraq war authorization was quickly forgotten once subsequent resolutions pushed the American project in Iraq. Spectacularly egregious was the security council approval of a Spanish resolution condemning Eta for the Madrid bombings when most suspected al-Qaida. This cavalier use of supposedly hallowed security council resolutions was only possible because of support from the US, which wished to protect the Aznar government from electoral defeat.
While the security council's double standards over the Middle East are the principal cause of Arab and Muslim hostility, America's ability to pressure UN heads to toe the line is also a vexing problem. The Bush administration continues to impose maximum pressure on Kofi Annan to effect a fuller UN return to Iraq, regardless of the physical danger and moral damage to which this exposes the organization and its staff. Mr Annan has been resolute on the question of guaranteed security being prerequisite for UN staff returning, but on the question of the need for a democratically elected interim government and, more recently, the composition of the interim government, it has looked if the UN has buckled to US pressure again. When powerful member states find it necessary to give in so often to American demands, it is hardly surprising that an appointed secretary general finds it hard to challenge the US on issues it considers vital.
The Bush administration puts relentless pressure on countries to support even the most questionable aspects of its war on terror, regardless of the damage such support might do to their stability. A perfect example is the drive to get a UN mission operational in Iraq under the protection of forces from Muslim countries. Such a presence would pose excruciating risks to both the UN and any countries that comply, notably Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; but such is US power that its "persuasion" might succeed. Little seems to have been learned from the cataclysm that befell the UN a year ago today.
The UN is precious - not because of its name, but because it struggles, however imperfectly, to reach global consensus on the world's critical issues. The fanatics who blew up the UN mission dealt a severe blow to its fortunes in the Middle East. But more lasting damage is being done to the legitimacy of this irreplaceable institution by demands to obey US dictates. If it continues to bow to pressure, its capital will be squandered and its resolutions rendered weightless for large chunks of humanity.
Member states and the secretary general should see this eroding legitimacy as the greatest challenge the organization faces. But they will be unable to make effective headway unless the US itself recognizes that it needs, in its own interest, to show greater respect for the UN, from which it can learn to define and pursue its own interests more wisely.
· Salim Lone was director of communications for the UN mission in Iraq headed by the late Sergio Vieira de Mello
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004