Accessibility links

Iraq: UN Becomes A Target For Iraqi Groups Battling Coalition

  • Charles Recknagel

In the wake of the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad yesterday, many are asking why the world body should be a target for opponents of the U.S.-led occupation. But one answer may be that many of the groups fighting the coalition in Iraq regard the UN -- seen by so many as mostly a humanitarian organization -- as a strategic target in their battle with Washington.

Prague, 20 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Just how much the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad has surprised the world public was evident in many of the questions reporters asked Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Stockholm today.

Annan, holding his first press conference since yesterday's bombing, was repeatedly asked why anyone in Iraq would target an organization whose main role in the country is providing humanitarian assistance to the population.

The UN chief said that the world body is in Iraq to help but that apparently some groups in Iraq have come to regard it as a strategic target in their battle with the U.S.-led coalition.

"We are there to help but, obviously, there may be people who are not interested in that kind of help. There may be people who are determined to destabilize the situation. There may be people who are anxious to see the UN and others leave Iraq and it is very difficult to say what is exactly the message they are trying to send," Annan said.

The attack on the UN headquarters comes as the world body in recent weeks has become increasingly involved in Iraq, including passing a resolution giving a 12-month mandate to the new UN Assistance Mission for Iraq. That measure allows the UN to fund its programs in Iraq through its regular budget rather than through emergency funding -- as it has been doing previously.

As part of the resolution passed last week the Security Council also welcomed the creation of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council. That followed its granting of almost unanimous approval in late May for the U.S. and Britain to steer Iraq's short-term economic and political transition. Both resolutions have helped end months of pre-war international acrimony over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which the UN never officially approved.

But analysts say that the cost of the UN's growing involvement in Iraq is that anti-U.S. groups are increasingly coming to view the world body and its affiliated agencies as allied with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Administration (CPA).

Tim Garden, a regional expert at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, says guerrilla and terrorist groups in Iraq now have added UN facilities to a growing list of "soft targets" which until now has included utilities and the Jordanian Embassy, as well as the assassination of Iraqi civilians working with the coalition.

"We do seem to have seen a general move in target sets from the various factions that are targeting the occupying powers away from the direct attacks on the military to softer targets with fairly high-profile impact, and we saw the oil, the water, and the UN perhaps seen as both a softer target and giving international visibility," Garden said.

Garden says that groups targeting the UN would be aiming to sabotage the efforts of the U.S.-led CPA to return life to normal as part of a transition to a new and more democratic post-Hussein Iraq.

He says the UN's progress at getting food aid distributions back on track after the March/April war and its announced intention to assist in the holding of future national elections makes it a key player in Iraq's post-Hussein hopes.

"Many [of these groups] do not want Iraq to work under the occupying powers and have the transition to democracy which is the long-term plan. Now if they felt the UN was becoming more successful after the initial difficulties the UN has had in getting its correct position in respect to the occupying authority, then it could become a target for that reason," Garden said. "If it is a question of trying to make sure the country is destabilized, then showing that international organizations cannot operate also can be a motive."

For some of the possible suspects in yesterday's bombing, the UN may merely be a useful target to be struck dispassionately as their fight with the coalition demands. Such groups could include organizations like the Islamic militant Ansar al-Islam, formerly based in northern Iraq and which is suspected of links to Al-Qaeda, and numerous bands of anti-U.S. militants believed to be infiltrating Iraq through Syria and other neighboring states.

But for other suspects -- particularly loyalists of the former Hussein regime -- striking the UN could be partly motivated by a desire to settle old scores that date to long before the world body's current role in reconstructing the country.

For Hussein's former regime, the UN has been a key antagonist since the 1990 Gulf crisis, when the world body slapped economic sanctions on Baghdad following its invasion of Kuwait. The sanctions, whose lifting depended upon Baghdad's proving it had no continuing weapons of mass destruction programs, were seen by the ruling Ba'ath Party as a direct violation of Iraqi sovereignty by the world body under the impetus of Washington and London.

Hussein's battle with the UN included Baghdad regularly obstructing arms inspectors' visits to suspected weapons development sites, punitive strikes by U.S. and British warplanes, and Iraq's banishing arms inspectors from the country altogether for four years. At the same time, it saw the UN create an oil-for-food program that limited Hussein's regime to spending its legal oil revenues only upon food and medicine.

That history could mean that some elements of the old regime view the UN not merely as an ally of the coalition but as a hostile presence in its own right. If so, that would be one more reason why the UN now has to rethink how to protect itself in an Iraq where not everyone views it as merely a humanitarian organization.

Speaking in Stockholm today, Annan said he remains firm in his conviction that the overwhelming number of Iraqis welcome the UN's presence in the country and want to cooperate actively with it:

"We believe that most Iraqis, most sensible and normal Iraqis, would want to see their country stabilized and they have been cooperating with the UN and the international community and I hope they will continue to do so," Annan said.

He also said that his main message to whichever group bombed the UN headquarters yesterday is that the organization is not going to be scared out of the country.

Annan said: "The main message is that we will persevere. We will continue our work. It is an essential work, and we are not going to be intimidated."