UNITED NATIONS—In a blow to President Bush's effort to get more worldwide help in stabilizing Iraq, the United Nations on Thursday ordered the withdrawal of some of its international staffers from Iraq out of fear for their safety.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan made the decision in the wake of Monday's suicide bomb attack on the United Nations' headquarters in Baghdad that killed one Iraqi police officer and injured 19 U.N. workers. A bombing at the compound on Aug. 19 left 22 people dead, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of the U.N. Mission in Iraq and a close friend of Annan.
"The secretary general, on the advice of his security coordinator, has ordered a temporary redeployment of United Nations international staff in Iraq," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said in a written statement. "Today, there remain 42 in Baghdad and 44 in the north of the country, and those numbers can be expected to shrink further in the next few days."
U.N. officials in New York did not have the exact number of workers ordered to move to Amman, Jordan.
Eckhard said the moves are not an "evacuation," but a "downsizing" while U.N. officials review the situation on the ground. He stressed that the removal of the workers won't impact humanitarian efforts in Iraq because 4,000 U.N. national staffers remain in the country.
Annan's action couldn't come at a worse time for the White House. Bush returned to Washington on Wednesday from a two-day visit to New York to urge U.N. members to provide money and military manpower to help stabilize and rebuild Iraq.
Administration officials are working on a U.N. resolution designed to encourage reluctant nations to help the United States in the Iraq effort. Bush left New York with no promises of support and little hope of getting any in the near future, with or without a U.N. resolution.
Bush's plea to the United Nations for help came as more and more Americans, concerned about the rising American death toll and mounting costs in post-war Iraq, say they want the United Nations to have a greater role.
A new Pew Research Center poll found that seven in 10 Americans favor giving the United Nations significant responsibility for establishing a stable government in Iraq, up from 64 percent in April.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said administration officials expected the U.N. decision to withdraw some of its foreign staff.
"We certainly understand their concerns and understand their reasons for pursuing a reduction, but they have a vital role to play and we want them to continue to play that role," McClellan said. "Certainly, in the wake of the recent bombing of the United Nations headquarters, we understand the grief of the United Nations family and the need to ensure the safety of United Nations employees in Iraq."
"The Coalition Provisional Authority and coalition forces in Iraq will continue working closely with United Nations officials to ensure the protection of U.N. employees," McClellan said.
Stephen Zunes, a University of San Francisco political science professor, believes that Bush will be hard pressed to find many countries willing to send troops to Iraq in the aftermath of the U.N. decision to pull workers out.
"If the U.N. determines it's unsafe for its relief workers, countries are going to think twice about sending their people to Iraq," said Zunes, author of "We Don't Need No Stinking Badges: The United States, The United Nations, and The Middle East." "If the U.N. pulls people out, it's pretty darn serious."
Despite the setback, administration officials on Thursday continued to forge ahead slowly on crafting a resolution acceptable to the 15-member United Nations Security Council. Secretary of State Colin Powell reported "some convergence of views" following a meeting with officials from China, France, Great Britain and Russia—all veto-holding permanent members of the Security Council.
France, Germany, Russia and several other nations have been pressing for a swift transfer of power in Iraq from the U.S.-controlled provisional authority to Iraqi civilians and a greater role for the United Nations in helping Iraq establish a government. The Bush administration has advocated a more measured approach with Iraqis drafting a constitution before they are handed the reins of power.
Earlier in the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that whatever is done, the United Nations must play an important role in Iraq.
Perhaps with an eye toward his weekend meeting with Bush at Camp David, Putin, who opposed the war with Iraq, refrained from directly criticizing the United States and stressed the need for strong U.N. involvement.
"The direct participation by the United Nations alone in rebuilding Iraq will enable its people themselves to decide on their future," Putin told the U.N. General Assembly. "But only the active—and I want to stress this—practical assistance by the United Nations in its economic and civil transformation, only thus will Iraq assume a truly new, worthy place in the world community."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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