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Iraqi disaster turns UN into community of mourners
( 2003-08-20 09:30) (Agencies)

In tears, devastated U.N. staff gathered around television sets in hallways on Tuesday, asking for news of colleagues, stunned that the United Nations itself was the target of an unprecedented suicide attack in Baghdad.

People gather under a television monitor at the United Nations in New York on August 19, 2003 to watch news reports about the bombing of United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. In tears, devastated U.N. staff gathered around television sets in hallways, asking for news of colleagues, stunned that the United Nations itself was the target of an unprecedented suicide attack in Baghdad.  [Reuters]
And everyone knew Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of the U.N. operation in Iraq, whose name led the list of dead. As one of the world's most experienced diplomats, he was a probable candidate for secretary-general, a rising star and beloved figure who had headed several dangerous missions.

"I can think of no one we could less afford to spare, or who would be more acutely missed throughout the U.N. system," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said.

One staff member put it more bluntly, mumbling: "We send our best guy to Iraq and he comes home in a box."

The flags of 191 nations that ring the entrance of the U.N. compound on Manhattan's East River were removed. The blue-and-white U.N. flag was lowered to half staff as the headquarters staff turned into a community of mourning.

With Annan rushing home from a summer break in Scandinavia, the public face of the United Nations fell to his chief spokesman, the usually unruffled Fred Eckhard, whose voice broke several times during his countless interviews.

"Most of us know at least some of the people affected by this tragedy so it hits home in a personal way," Eckhard said. "It's not easy."

Among the long-time U.N. employees in the Baghdad headquarters, demolished by a cement truck filled with explosives, was Benon Sevan, an undersecretary-general, who was overseeing the end of the U.N. oil-for-food program. He was slightly hurt but generally well, Eckhard said.


But uncertain was the condition of Nadia Younes, Vieira de Mello's chief of staff and a witty, popular U.N. employee from Egypt. She served as spokeswoman for former Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar as well as chief of protocol.

While Eckhard repeatedly said that U.N. staff were geared up to face war and walk unarmed into dangerous situations, the Iraq mission was different because of the controversy surrounding the U.S.-British invasion.

The U.N. Staff Council's security committee angrily called on Annan "to suspend all operations in Iraq and withdraw its staff" until security was improved.

It demanded a "full investigation" to determine why adequate security, supplied by the United States, was "not in place to prevent such a horrifying act."

The uneasiness of the United States at giving the United Nations a political role, which Vieira de Mello was to carry out, made the mission a vague one. Eckhard said Vieira de Mello was to coordinate humanitarian relief as well as talk to all segments of Iraqi leadership and society.

Mexican Ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser said the atrocity demanded that the 15-member Security Council regain a sense of unity after divisions over the invasion.

He contended that whoever was responsible "knew what they were doing, knew they were attacking the United Nations."

Some diplomats thought the attack was a way to get at the United States by hitting a "soft" target such as the loosely guarded U.N. Baghdad complex. Others said supporters of former President Saddam Hussein blamed the world body for 13 years of sanctions.

Pakistani Ambassador Munir Akram said the purpose of the United Nations may have been misunderstood. "We need to make a greater effort to convince the Iraqi people that the United Nations is acting for their welfare, and that we are a presence that is designed to help them come back to normalcy," he said.

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