Global Policy Forum

Three Years after Attack, UN Soldiers On

Integrated Regional Information Networks
August 20, 2006

The bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad three years ago on 19 August and the UN's subsequent retreat from Iraq has hampered its ability to help the country, some Iraqis believe.

"Because the UN is not working beside the population, we started to get the impression that it is following US conditions," said Farouk al-Zidin, a shopkeeper in the capital. "And day by day they are going to lose their good reputation among Iraqis." He and other Iraqis said that the UN's lack of a visible presence in the population and its transfer of offices to inside the US-controlled Green Zone have generated a bad image for the organisation.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and special envoy to Iraq, was killed in the blast at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, along with 21 other UN staff members. After a second bomb targeted the UN headquarters the following month, the UN withdrew 600 international staff from Iraq. Much of its work there is now directed from Amman, Jordan.

"Their death marked the UN's loss of innocence," said Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a statement released for the third anniversary of the bombing. "This organisation had been attacked before, and it has been targeted since. But the Baghdad attack dealt a fatal blow to the illusion that wearing a blue helmet, or hoisting a UN flag, placed us above the fray."

An official with the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in Amman, who asked not to be named, said work in Baghdad during the past three years has been very difficult because of the limitations on freedom of movement.

Nevertheless, UNAMI has facilitated national dialogue and reconciliation talks through meetings with Iraqi political leaders, the official said. UNAMI also claims a major achievement in the technical assistance it provided to the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq during the campaigns held so far.

But that work is largely invisible to the Iraqi public, who have seen more than 40,000 civilian compatriots (according to NGO Iraq Body Count) killed since the beginning of the United States-led occupation of Iraq in March 2003.

Despite the dangers, however, hundreds of UN-backed projects have gone forward, and that support has been essential, Iraqi officials said. "The UN has been offering great support to our country, especially in human rights, but also their magnificent follow-up during the elections periods and the constitution drafting and its referendum," said Khuman Ahmed, human rights adviser at the Ministry of Human Rights in Iraq.

Although the UN has put its weight behind human rights issues, the lack of security inhibited it from active participation, Ahmed said. That is a problem which affects not only the UN but all organisations working in the reconstruction of Iraq, he said. UN efforts continue nonetheless. Among the assignments the UN has been carrying out in Iraq is a UN Office of Project Services (UNOPS) project to assist displaced Iraqis returning to their homes in three northern governorates. To date, 658 houses out of a total of 1,000 have been finished at five different locations.

Another project, which was supported by the UN Children's Fund (Unicef) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), was the first round of nationwide polio immunisations. Implemented by Iraq's Ministry of Health, this effort involved 20,000 health workers going house to house to vaccinate 95 percent of the 4.8 million children under the age of 5. "The great efficiency that the UN has promoted in Iraq has prevented our children from getting ill from opportunistic diseases," said Ahmed Yehia, press office member at the Ministry of Health. Other UN projects are ongoing in the areas of agriculture, food security, environment and natural resource management, which local government officials said have already brought excellent results.

The UN special envoy to Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, said in a statement to the press that while the UN remains concerned about the security situation, he believes the people of Iraq want to make the political transition a success. "Iraqis believe that UN has a vital role to play in assistance to the population, on the political transition and help in building a better country," Qazi said.

However, with Iraq having just experienced its most deadly month since the start of the occupation, the international community, represented by the UN, has much to answer for. According to the Iraqi Health Ministry, 3,438 Iraqis were killed in July - 1,855 because of sectarian or political violence, and another 1,583 from bombings and shootings. In the latest violence, at least 20 people were shot dead at an annual Shi'ite festival in Baghdad on Sunday. Last year, nearly 1,000 people died in the same festival when rumours of suicide bombings prompted a stampede.

With talk of the country being on the brink of civil war, and Baghdad effectively under siege by sectarian militias, the UN has a major challenge on its hands.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on the UN Role in Post-War Iraq
More Information on the Occupation and Rule in Iraq
More Information on Iraq's Resistance to the Occupation


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