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September 15, 2004

Rising Violence Deters UN Presence in Iraq

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS – The escalating violence in Iraq – with over 50 civilians killed in Tuesday's terrorist attacks in Baghdad – is dissuading the United Nations from going back to the war-ravaged country, according to a senior UN official.

Briefing the Security Council for the first time since his appointment last month as the UN's Special Representative for Iraq, Ambassador Ashraf Jehangir Qazi told delegates that the current security situation is "far from conducive" to the deployment of international UN staffers – "except in minimal numbers."

Qazi said that "the tragic human dimension of the current situation in Iraq was brought home to all of us today, with almost 50 people losing their lives in yet another bombing."

"I condemn such acts of violence, whose primary victims are innocent civilians. It is a sign of the resurgence of the vicious cycle of violence that is halting the process of rebuilding the country. Improving the security situation is a collective responsibility that we all share," he added.

The 30 international staffers, who currently comprise the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), have been forced to confine themselves to the heavily U.S.-protected "Green Zone" in Baghdad.

The bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad last August – which resulted in 22 deaths – forced the United Nations to withdraw over a thousand international staffers from Iraq last year. The bombing also claimed the life of Under-Secretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Special Representative for Iraq, a post now held by Qazi.

But despite pressure from the United States, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been reluctant to risk his staffers in a deteriorating security environment.

Qazi told the Security Council that the UN's blue flag is now flying once more in Iraq, but "albeit, necessarily in the Green Zone," which also houses the U.S. embassy with over 1,000 staffers.

Since UNAMI is hunkered down in a zone under U.S. jurisdiction, he said, it limits the ability of the United Nations to interact with a sufficiently wide range of the Iraqi political spectrum.

A resolution adopted by the Security Council in July urged the 191 member states to supply troops for a new security force to provide protection to UN staffers engaged not only in humanitarian operations but also in organizing nationwide elections scheduled to take place before the end of January next year.

But the United Nations is unable to fulfill this mandate on both counts because of daily roadside bombings and suicide attacks against U.S. soldiers, foreign personnel and humanitarian workers.

As of last week, not a single UN member state had volunteered to provide troops for the proposed protection force – particularly after insurgents threatened to retaliate against any country sending troops into Iraq, even under a UN flag.

A proposal by Saudi Arabia to create a pan-Islamic protection force has also failed to get off the ground because of threats.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard told reporters Tuesday that "the extensive search for [troop] contributors to protect UN premises and staff in Iraq had not to date produced any definitive agreements with donors."

"The United Nations is talking to potential contributors, but no deal has been struck. The hope is that the United Nations will receive the necessary protection elements," he added.

Eckhard also said that if the security situation improves, the United Nations and its affiliated humanitarian agencies plan to field "a couple of hundred" staffers both for the UN's electoral unit and for its humanitarian mission in Iraq.

Such an amount, he said, would greatly exceed the limit on staffing set by the UN Security Coordinator, who has advised against a heavy UN presence in Iraq.

"Unless the United Nations receives sufficient protection or the security situation in Iraq improves, it would not be possible to bring in large numbers of international staff," Eckhard said.

Qazi said there were serious differences within Iraqi society. The transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi interim government in July has not been accompanied by an improvement in the security situation.

"This is the central challenge facing Iraq today. The main victims of the violence in Iraq are Iraqi civilians. The climate of fear remains entrenched," he said.

Qazi also said that ultimately, this situation can only be resolved politically: a view diametrically opposed to the United States, which seeks to resolve the problem militarily.

U.S. Ambassador John Danforth told the Security Council that the United States was engaged in an exercise to rebuild Iraq's armed forces and police so that they can take control of the situation.

As of last week, he said, the Iraqi ministry of defense had over 231,000 security forces either on duty on in training. They comprised the Iraqi army, the national guard, the intervention force, and special operations force, the air force and the coastal defense force.

The Iraqi police force, which came under the ministry of interior, numbered over 86,000. When training was complete, he said, the goal was to have a 135,000-strong, well-equipped, highly motivated police force.

"Much work remained to be done, however, and the insurgents had proven persistent in their attacks against the Iraqi interim government, their security forces and the Iraqi people," Danforth said.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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