That August day four years ago in Baghdad, I was standing in the rubble of Canal Hotel, the UN headquarters that had been devastated by a huge terrorist bomb. In a break from my non-stop media briefings - I was spokesman for the UN's Baghdad mission - I was talking to Ronnie Stokes, a senior American colleague. Then, abruptly, I turned around. In front of me lay 12 neatly-draped white sheets. I found myself becoming breathless, and in the panic did not know what to feel, think or say. I saw the tips of a pair of feet sticking out from under a sheet. I remember thinking how pale and white they were.
"Who is that?" I whispered. "Rick Hooper," said Ronnie. Rick was a 40-year-old American whose intimacy with the Arab world made him a key figure for the UN. When Iraq was occupied in 2003, Rick and I were approached to go there. We had said no, feeling this was a US show and the UN would be irrelevant. But Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special representative for Iraq who himself had been reluctant to go, prevailed on us to come. I survived narrowly that day; they both were now dead, along with 20 other friends and colleagues.
Apart from the terrorist bombers, those who share responsibility for the UN carnage are the permanent member states of the security council, as well as the former secretary general, Kofi Annan, and other agency heads who sent more than 500 of us to a war zone in which we could do very little, confined as we were to our offices and hotels. But UN officials were bending over backwards to placate a US administration that had been enraged by the organisation's refusal to support the war.
Our large staff contingent was meant to show the world that Iraq was safe enough and legitimate enough for other nations and organisations to support the occupation. The 22 died not for Iraq, but to restore UN relations with the US. In a clear acceptance of high-level culpability for the deaths, the then UN deputy secretary general, Louise FrÃƒ©chette, offered her resignation, which Annan rejected.
That same scenario is being played out again. At a time when nation after nation is abandoning Iraq, a supine security council and the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, agreed last week to a US-UK proposal to send new UN staff. Iraq is much more perilous than it was at the time of the UN bombing. Ban has stressed that his first consideration in the deployment of the 30 staff will be their safety. This means they will be mostly confined to their bunkers.
These 30 are charged with promoting reconciliation - in a country where four years of ethnic cleansing, amid a brutal occupation and terrorism, have left nearly a million Iraqis dead, with 4 million fleeing their homes. The full military, political and economic might of the US has been unable to pacify the country or prevent its internecine destruction, but this small, mid-level UN group will supposedly make a big difference.
The US in Iraq has often turned to the UN, but always to provide cover for its pre-determined policy. That is why Vieira de Mello and Lakhdar Brahimi, leading experts in reconciling bitterly divided societies, could do little to prevent Iraq from unravelling. The US would countenance no proposal from them that might undermine its hold on the country.
None of this is to say that the UN cannot help. I have argued on these pages since 2003 that only the UN can lead the effort to help Iraq come together again. But for this to happen, US and UK forces would have to leave, and a new UN mission and peacekeepers, independent of US influence, would have to be assembled. This is fantasy as long as George Bush is running the show. But if a new US administration in 2009 decides that holding on to Iraq is not feasible, even a neutral, UN-led process to reunite the nation will carry no promise of success.
Salim Lone can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 The Guardian/UK