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Iraq: Report Says UN Ignored Warnings, Basic Procedures Before Attack

  • Robert McMahon

An independent panel says major lapses in UN security management preceded the worst-ever attack on a UN facility -- the 19 August bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad. The report, commissioned by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, says staff were sent to Iraq unprepared for the changed security environment and that leading officials ignored warnings of an imminent attack. The report calls for sweeping improvements in the way UN operations are protected in high-risk assignments in Iraq and elsewhere.

United Nations, 23 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A group of security experts is recommending sweeping reforms in the way the United Nations protects its staff in the field after what it calls a breakdown prior to the August bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters.

The group issued a report yesterday citing a series of fundamental lapses in security operations in Iraq last summer. The most serious flaw involved arrangements for protecting the main UN compound at the Canal Hotel.

The expert group's report says adequate security measures at the hotel could have reduced the number of casualties.

Although there was a clear need for security at the headquarters, the report said, UN senior management in Iraq were uncomfortable with the presence of forces provided by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

UN officials on several occasions requested that the coalition remove forces and equipment from the security perimeter around the Canal Hotel.

The head of the expert panel, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, told reporters this desire for neutrality left UN staff in a security vacuum without coalition protection.

"That was the only security arrangement that could be made available at the time. I haven't seen anywhere during our very hectic days of looking into this matter that somebody would have actually seriously looked for alternative security arrangements," Ahtisaari said.

Ahtisaari said this lapse was allowed to occur despite the fact that UN security officials in Baghdad had received intelligence warnings of an imminent attack in the Canal Road area in early August.

As UN international staff in Iraq rose to about 600 by mid-August, he said, few appeared to recognize the dramatic changes in the security environment in Iraq. Ahtisaari says the UN's recent history in Iraq had eroded its stature in the country.

"Whether we like it or not, [the] UN image was tarnished in the eyes of many Iraqis because of sanctions, because of the oil-for-food [program], because it was not necessarily seen as a humanitarian undertaking but as an infringement of their sovereignty to use the oil revenues as they liked, [because of UN] arms inspections, et cetera, et cetera," Ahtisaari said.

The 19 August attack killed 22 people, including the chief UN representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and injured 150. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Abu-Hafs al-Masri Brigades, a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

The expert panel's report recommends an in-depth review and reform of the entire UN security system by independent professionals. It calls for accountability at all managerial levels for overseeing security regulations and for significant increases in resources to improve the organization's security infrastructure.

UN spokeswoman Hua Jiang read a statement saying steps will be taken to make sure the report's main recommendations are implemented quickly. She had no other immediate details about the response from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's office.

"There are a lot of recommendations contained in the report, so he will need time to study and have further discussions with his management team," said Jiang.

The UN Staff Union issued a statement calling for a more detailed investigation into the role and responsibility of senior UN officials in the security failure.

Claude Bruderlein is a member of the panel and serves as the director of the program on humanitarian policy and conflict research at Harvard University. He said the panel refrained from naming individuals responsible for security because it prefers that the UN handle the issue.

"We're calling on the UN to set in place the appropriate process -- being under staff regulations or an independent, separate process -- to review these accountability issues," Bruderlein said.

The report is similar in tone to two searing internal investigations commissioned by Annan four years ago on the peacekeeping debacles in Rwanda and Bosnia.

Those reports resulted in a comprehensive study calling for peacekeeping reforms, improvements in the chain of command and more direct guidelines from the Security Council on UN missions. Some improvements have been made, but difficulties in mounting missions this year in Liberia and Congo recalled past problems related to the will of the Security Council.

The expert panel welcomed the Security Council's latest resolution on Iraq, passed last week, because it recognizes the discretion of Annan's office in deciding when to build the capacity of the UN in Iraq "as circumstances permit."

The resolution also authorizes a multinational force under U.S. command to contribute to the security of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq.

After downsizing, the UN currently has about 50 international staff in Iraq, in addition to about 4,000 Iraqi national staff. There are no immediate plans to increase international staff in Iraq.

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