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Iraqis condemn attack on U.N., killing of `peaceful people'

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Rows of blue United Nations sport utility vehicles sat unused Wednesday in the parking lot of a Baghdad hotel.

Instead of distributing water and textbooks, U.N. employees spent the day hugging bandaged colleagues who had been injured in the bombing of their Baghdad headquarters Tuesday, reassuring one another that their mission to help rebuild Iraq is worth the risk.

Baghdad residents condemned the bombing, drawing a distinction between terrorism against humanitarian workers and the guerrilla attacks on U.S. soldiers, which many Iraqis consider legitimate resistance to foreign occupation.

"A lot of peaceful people were in that building," said Mohamed Mustafa, 28, who sat with friends Wednesday at a coffee shop in Baghdad. "Why did they do this? Everybody knows the difference between the U.N. and the U.S. The U.N. is here to help us; the U.S. is here to occupy."

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced Wednesday that the organization would remain in Iraq despite the attack, which killed at least 24 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. representative in Iraq.

"The least we owe them is to ensure that their deaths have not been in vain," Annan said in Sweden. "We shall continue."

Two U.N. workers in Baghdad—one Palestinian, the other Kenyan—said their sense of security had crumbled. The men, who declined to give their names because they aren't authorized spokesmen, said they had worked in Iraq for years, and had enjoyed the smiles from Iraqi students when their familiar blue truck pulled up to dilapidated schools with new math and science books.

On Wednesday, the two men prayed they wouldn't have to ride around Baghdad in U.N.-marked vehicles, which they called "big blue cars that are too conspicuous, too imposing." They hadn't yet received word on whether their program would continue.

"If the U.N. was not here, Iraqis would be left with coalition forces, and I don't know what kind of humanitarian aid they would provide," the Kenyan man said.

At two other U.N. installations, private security officials who work for the organization said they had increased security measures, which didn't include a U.S. military presence. At the World Health Organization, for example, Iraqi guards in blue body armor searched each vehicle before allowing it through the steel gate that blocked access from the street.

At the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization, workers reinforced a concrete wall to shield them from possible attack.

"We're the U.N.; we're a peaceful organization. We never thought we'd be attacked," said Auriq Lazar, a former Iraqi army officer who's the facility's security manager. "Now we will be increasing the number of guards."

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, essential players in efforts by the U.S.-led coalition to rebuild Iraq's devastated economy, said they were withdrawing assessment teams indefinitely. Five IMF staffers were in the U.N. building at the time of the explosion, and four sustained minor injuries, IMF spokesman David Hawley said in Washington.

At a mansion converted into the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a low wall with a guard station keeps out intruders, but would provide little buffer should a bomb explode just outside the gates. In mid-July, gunmen killed a Red Cross worker and injured another south of Baghdad in what was called an attack on a group whose main focus is monitoring the conditions of thousands of Iraqis in U.S. detention centers.

"Since then, we are being much more cautious in our movements, but there's not much else we can do," said Nada Doumani, the Red Cross spokeswoman in Baghdad. "We won't ask for any coalition forces to come and protect us. We believe our emblem should protect us."

A quarter-mile from the site of Tuesday's blast, 56-year-old Zanifa Dinkha swept pieces of a broken lamp off her floor as a repairman fixed windows that had been shattered by the blast. She knew workers at the U.N. compound, and friends have nicknamed her husband "Kofi Annan" because of his reputation as a neighborhood problem solver.

"I shouldn't say this, but I don't get upset when U.S. soldiers are attacked because I feel that what they are doing here is unjust and unfair," Dinkha said. "But the U.N. is different. I felt safe when they were here, and I never saw harm from them. So many people died in this disaster and I ask myself, `What was their sin?'"

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

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