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UN: Organization Shaken After Top Diplomat Killed In Iraq Blast

  • Robert McMahon

The worst attack ever against a UN facility has killed at least 17 people, including top UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, a key figure in the political transformation of Iraq. UN officials, shaken by the attack, have vowed to press ahead with efforts to restore stability and independence to Iraq.

United Nations, 20 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations today is mourning the death of one of its most accomplished diplomats in an attack that has shaken the organization at a time when its influence in Iraqi affairs was rising.

The top UN envoy for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was among at least 17 people killed -- including both international and Iraqi staff -- in the explosion of a truck bomb at UN headquarters in Baghdad. More than 100 were injured. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

In about three months of work, Vieira de Mello had raised the UN's profile in political matters in Iraq. He had gained the confidence of many of the U.S.-led coalition administering Iraq as well as Iraqi officials.

The UN Security Council, top U.S. officials, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan all expressed determination in pressing forward with reconstruction and reform in Iraq.

At a news conference today in Stockholm, Annan addressed the question of whether the UN was considering pulling out some of its staff in Iraq as a result of the bombing. The UN secretary-general said "all options" would be assessed by the UN Security Council when it meets later today. But he insisted that the UN should continue to maintain a presence in post-Hussein Iraq.

"There are many other United Nations officials who remain in Iraq and we will continue our work. We should not be distracted nor deterred by this senseless and brutal act of violence," Annan said.

But UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said yesterday the attack represented a clear setback to UN operations in Iraq. The UN undersecretary-general for communications, Shashi Tharoor, told the BBC that the UN would have to review its presence in Iraq.

Eckhard read a statement from Annan calling Vieira de Mello's death a "bitter blow" for the United Nations.

"I can think of no one we could less afford to spare, or who would be more acutely missed throughout the UN system, than Sergio. Throughout his career he has been an outstanding servant of humanity, dedicated to relieving the suffering of his fellow men and women, helping them to [resolve] their conflicts and rebuild their war-torn societies," Eckhard said.

Among other victims in the attack was Christopher Klein-Beekman, the Iraqi coordinator for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The World Bank said four of its employees and a consultant based in the UN building were missing.

Diplomats and staff at the UN's New York headquarters expressed a mixture of outrage and grief as details of the attack became known. The flags of 191 nations flying in front of the building were lowered. The sky-blue UN flag was left flying at half staff.

Annan had named Vieira de Mello Iraqi envoy in May, temporarily taking him away from his post as UN high commissioner for human rights. He had previously impressed Security Council members by guiding East Timor toward independence.

Among his other numerous roles, Vieira de Mello served as UN special representative in Kosovo in 1999.

Vieira de Mello was one of the highest-ranking UN officials killed in such an attack since 1948, when Jewish extremists killed UN peace mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in Jerusalem.

The attack came as a special shock to UN officials because of the organization's role in leading humanitarian efforts in Iraq. Spokesman Eckhard, talking to reporters, could not offer a motive for the bombing.

"Our objectives in Iraq were ones I doubt any Iraqi could argue with. We wanted to help them out on the humanitarian side while we facilitated their return to independence and sovereignty. Who could be against that?" Eckhard said.

Vieira de Mello was a vigorous supporter of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. He said it was the most representative body possible at the moment and marked a step toward the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty.

The UN Security Council last week welcomed the Iraqi council as an interim body dealing with Iraqi governance issues. The Security Council also established a formal UN mission of 300 staff In Iraq under the direction of the special representative.

That mission is expected to advise Iraqi officials on electoral and legal reforms, police training, and many other issues.

Vieira de Mello had established a productive working relationship with L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq.

Bremer told reporters yesterday the UN envoy appeared to be the target of the attack, carried out by a cement truck filled with explosives. He vowed to use all efforts to find the perpetrators.

"These people are not content with having killed thousands of people before. They just want to keep killing and killing and killing and they won't have their way," Bremer said.

Two weeks ago, a truck bomb damaged the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, killing 17 people. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but coalition leaders have said Muslim militants or loyalists of deposed President Saddam Hussein were likely to be responsible.

Vieira de Mello had emphasized repeatedly that his role was to help Iraqis return to self-government. He stressed this message in a news conference in Baghdad in late June.

"We must not impose anything on this nation. Rather we must assist where needed, where invited by the Iraqis, in rebuilding a pluralistic, democratic country that the Iraqis so deeply yearn for and so richly deserve," he said.

The UN Security Council held emergency consultations yesterday, issuing a statement condemning what it called the "terrorist criminal attack."

Syria's deputy UN ambassador, Fayssal Mekdad, whose country is current president of the Security Council, said the UN would intensify its efforts to aid the people of Iraq.

"We think such attacks should not stop United Nations programs and activities in Iraq. On the contrary, this necessitates that the United Nations take all measures to deepen its role in Iraq," Mekdad said.

Vieira de Mello's temporary term as special envoy was due to run out next month. Annan has been considering a number of possible successors but no lead candidate has emerged yet. Annan is to return to UN headquarters later today and brief the Security Council (at approximately 23:30 Prague time).

The United Nations employs more than 600 international staff in Iraq and more than 2,000 Iraqi nationals.