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May 12, 2004

UN Warned of Death Trap in Iraq

by Thalif Deen

As the United Nations prepares to organize elections and help create a new interim government in Iraq starting in July, skepticism is growing about the wisdom of risking UN lives in a country swirling in violence and chaos..

The UN mission in Iraq is bound to fail, predict many Middle East analysts and UN staffers, because the world body is being increasingly viewed "not as an independent broker but as a glorified sub-contractor to the United States".

"Keep off Iraq," warns the 5,500-strong UN Staff Union, which has just adopted a unanimous resolution urging the world body to take immediate additional steps to address "the serious flaws in the security management system".

"We are dismayed that Secretary-General (Kofi Annan) continues to send staff to Iraq despite the present highly volatile and insecure environment," the resolution said.

A new UN Security Council resolution, which is expected to be adopted before the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) withdraws from Baghdad on Jun. 30, will call for the creation of new multinational force for Iraq. But so far, there appear to be few volunteers.

India and Pakistan, two of the largest troop contributors to UN peacekeeping missions worldwide, have indicated they will not provide soldiers for any such force.

Salim Lone, a former spokesman for Under-Secretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello, who died in a suicide bombing in Iraq last August, says that greater involvement of UN staff should only flow from a new Security Council initiative that would launch a new political and security mission independent of U.S. control.

"Such a Security Council involvement should be the pre-requisite for the return of UN staff. The only way to end this is to convince Iraqis that the international community is determined to ensure that their country becomes a genuinely free nation," he added.

Hans von Sponeck, a former head of the Oil-for-Food Program, says "a UN mandate would be one of the few possible ways out of the current quagmire.."

"Such a mandate, however, is no option unless two fundamental pre-conditions are met: security conditions must permit a UN presence, and a UN role must be in no way dependent on the authority of the CPA."

If neither of these preconditions is met, he argues, it would be irresponsible for the Security Council to allow a return of UN staff to Iraq.

"Lack of security would endanger UN lives, lack of a clear and independent mandate would further endanger the credibility of the United Nations," Von Sponeck added.

Award-winning journalist Naomi Klein says that 40 percent of U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers have walked off the jobs, along with their weapons.

"There is a way the United Nations can redeem itself: it could choose to join the mutiny," adds Klein author of the best-seller 'No Logo'.

"Asking UN staff to work in Iraq is the equivalent of throwing innocent lives into a lion's den," says Merrill Cassell, a former budget director who served in Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"Every UN staff member is a potential target in Iraq à sending UN staff to work in Iraq without security guarantees is one of the cruelest management decisions the United Nations can make, as US staff are unarmed and cannot defend themselves," Cassell told IPS.

A widely publicized report released last week said the al-Qaeda terrorist group had specifically directed death threats against Annan and his special representative in Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, and that both men have a price on their heads.

"Obviously, we take it seriously, and we will have to take precautions and then carry on with my life and my work. And that's what we're going to do," Annan told reporters.

Both present and former UN staffers are unanimous in their contention that the world body is walking into a "death trap" in Iraq.

The United Nations already has an auditing and monitoring team on the ground in Iraq. An electoral team, headed by an international commissioner, is expected to be dispatched to the country after July and will be tasked to ensure that the electoral process remains free and fair.

Carina Perelli, director of the U.N.'s Electoral Assistance Division, who made a preliminary visit to Iraq last month, told reporters after returning that "violence during the electoral process had to be minimized, and candidates should not be intimidated."

Because of security conditions, she said, the United Nations would have to rely on US forces for protection during the election processes.

Perelli said it would take eight months to complete the technical work required to hold a vote in Iraq.

But Staff Union Vice President Guy Candusso says that no UN staff – "not even in small numbers" – should be dispatched to Iraq.

Annan did not do justice to the 22 international staffers who died in last August's bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad, Candusso told IPS, because he failed to hold accountable senior UN officials "whose managerial incompetence and gross negligence failed the staff."

Lone told IPS that it would be a great folly at the moment to send UN colleagues to undertake an elections mission in "Iraq's deadly environment." At best, he said, any UN mission would make a marginal difference in easing that "tortured country's woes."

"But that cannot justify the terrible risks colleagues would be taking, since our effort would further cement our identification with the (US) occupation," Lone said.

"The anti-occupation insurgency continues to gather greater popular support and strength by the week and you can be sure our staff would be prime targets," he warned.

(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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