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Iraq: UN Scales Back Presence Amid Security Concerns

Prague, 26 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations has announced further reductions in its international staff in Iraq. The move comes as leaders gathered in New York this week for the UN General Assembly sessions to discuss strengthening the organization's role in stabilizing Iraq.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard, speaking yesterday in New York, called the withdrawal "temporary." He said the decision was made by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and was based on the ongoing tense security situation in the country.

"The [UN] secretary-general, on the advice of his security coordinator, has ordered a temporary redeployment of UN international staff in Iraq. Today, there remain 42 in Baghdad and 44 in the north of the country and those numbers can be expected to shrink further over the next few days." Eckhard said.

About 600 international UN staff and 4,000 local employees worked in Iraq before a suicide-bomb attack on 19 August on the UN's Baghdad headquarters. Some 22 people, including the chief of the mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello, were killed. More than 100 others were wounded.

A second bomb attack on the compound a month later (22 September) killed an Iraqi policemen and wounded 19 including local UN workers. No one has claimed responsibility for either attack and the motives remain unclear.

The attacks have seriously crippled UN operations in the country, as most of the international personnel had already been ordered to leave the country. Less than 90 foreign UN employees remain in Baghdad and other areas.

UN officials today appeared eager to dampen the concern that by withdrawing they are abandoning Iraq completely. The UN press officer in Iraq, Veronique Taveau, said today in Baghdad: "The United Nations is not evacuating its staff. As the secretary-general said yesterday, it's a temporary measure. We are relocating the nonessential staff to the neighboring country because of the situation."

Meanwhile, today brought news of more attacks in the country. The U.S. military said today a mortar blast in a town near Baghdad killed eight Iraqi civilians overnight. It was unclear who was behind the blast.

Yesterday, a rocket-propelled grenade killed a U.S. soldier and wounded two others in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. In previous attacks on U.S. soldiers, officials have said "terrorists" and those loyal to former President Saddam Hussein are to blame.

In spite of the withdrawal, the United Nations remains the focal point in the diplomatic debate over Iraq's future. Last night, foreign ministers of the five permanent Security Council members -- the U.S., France, Russia, China, and Britain -- discussed with Annan ways to involve the UN further in the country's reconstruction.

Afterwards, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was pleased to see some convergence of views on a new U.S.-backed UN Security Council resolution on Iraq. "I think we did converge on the understanding that you [need] a democratic political process that rests on a constitution and elections that flow from that constitution, and that's been the subject of some debate over the last week or so, but I think we all have a common understanding," he said.

The U.S. is seeking a new UN mandate to get more countries to contribute troops and money to rebuild Iraq. France, among others, wants the Security Council to set a timetable for a speedy handover of power to Iraqi authorities, with the United Nations taking charge of the political transition that will restore Iraq's sovereignty.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his address yesterday to the UN General Assembly, called for a stronger role for the UN in Iraq but stopped short of supporting other demands.