In Iraq, UN blurs with US
The United Nations appears determined to maintain its role in Iraq, but some of its officials here are worrying that the organization has become too closely associated, in the minds of many Iraqis, with the country's US occupiers.Skip to next paragraph
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Nadine Shamounki, a UN Development Program communications officer who arrived in Iraq from New York on Aug. 6, says she can't "imagine a reason for attacking the UN." But she acknowledges that her experience in Iraq so far has not meshed with the image she had of people in troubled places welcoming the arrival of UN workers in their trademark SUVs. "Now I'm in the UN car and you don't see the welcome," she says.
UN officials are struggling to fathom the reasons behind a bomb attack Tuesday against their Baghdad headquarters, which killed at least 20 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the special representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and injured at least 100.
Mr. Annan said Wednesday in Sweden that the UN would persevere in Iraq: "It is essential work. We will not be intimidated." On the ground, the sentiment was much the same. "My understanding so far is that we are staying in Iraq to continue our mission," says Khaled Mansour, Iraq spokesman for the UN's World Food Program (WFP) in Iraq.
The UN trade sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war, and the lengthy periods during which UN inspectors prowled the country in search of Iraq's weapons account for part of the cold reception that has greeted Ms. Shamounki and other UN officials here. But in the wake of the war, the problem has been that the UN has become identified with the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, the body administering Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein last April.
UN officials in Iraq met recently to discuss how to counter the popular perception linking the UN with the US occupation, says one UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We were deeply concerned about being too close to the coalition, for security reasons," the official says.
Perhaps in part to distinguish themselves from the coalition, whose offices are in extensively protected compounds, many of them former Iraqi government facilities, the UN opted for reduced security. "We came here to be with the people of Iraq, to help the people of Iraq, and we didn't want to be surrounded by tanks, by machine guns, by concertina wire," UN spokesman Salim Lone told the BBC.
But UN officials' security concerns centered on possible displays of public frustration, such as demonstrations or the pelting of vehicles, not the sort of bombing that occurred Tuesday.
"Such an attack, with such ferocity, such precision - that indicates a political message, maybe one not connected to the UN," says the official who spoke on condition of anonymity. He says the attackers may have seen the UN as an easier-to-reach substitute for the US.
At the same time, UN officials say that have been committed to fulfilling their humanitarian missions - distributing food, improving schools and hospitals, assisting Iraqi ministries with development - in part because they felt that the coalition was unwilling or unable to perform such functions. UNICEF, a UN agency that normally concentrates on children's education and welfare, has helped to fill the vacuum of postwar public services by organizing garbage collection in Baghdad and other cities.
Mr. Vieira de Mello had only a vague political mandate from the UN Security Council, the body that creates UN missions around the globe: "To facilitate a process leading to an internationally recognized, representative government of Iraq."
Senior Iraqi officials say he worked hard at this task, urging the US to hand more power to the Governing Council, the 25-member Iraqi body assembled in mid-July. If the UN chief had concerns about Iraqis perceiving his organization as a front for the US occupation, he didn't let on publicly.
In an interview in his office last week, Vieira de Mello said he was convinced of the coalition's sincere desire to bring democracy to Iraq quickly. He discounted criticism, voiced by some Iraqis, that the makeup of the council, which was meant to reflect Iraq's ethnic and religious diversity, may promote friction in the society.
"Why put emphasis on what separates them, when what I see are 25 people, sitting around a table in Baghdad, coming together - no doubt with differences among them - and attempting in this rather disconcerting environment to put national interest above the diversity with the Governing Council?" he argued.
In the lobby of a small Baghdad hotel, WFP spokesman Mansour and other UN workers passed the time Wednesday. For security reasons, Iraqi UN employees were told to stay home; expatriates were confined to hotels. One UN worker copied his colleagues' passports and UN travel documents, in case of possible evacuation. Others tried to find out information about missing colleagues. "I got news about him, he will be released from the hospital," said one man to another, who looked relieved.
Over by the house phones, another UN worker received bad news. He put his face in his hands and wept.