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UN halts Iraq operations after bombing
( 2003-08-20 16:37) (Agencies)

United Nations workers were told to stay at home Wednesday after a cement truck packed with explosives blew up outside the offices of the top U.N. envoy in Iraq, killing him and 19 other people. The FBI was leading the search through the rubble for clues.

A U.S. soldier walks through the dust as a destroyed vehicle is removed from the site of Tuesday's bombing at the United Nations' headquarters , Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2003, in Baghdad, Iraq.  [AP]
At least 100 people were injured in the unprecedented attack against the world body.

After an all-night effort to find survivors, the rescue operation appeared to have turned into a grim search for the bodies of the many people unaccounted for at the heavily damaged U.N. headquarters. U.S. soldiers maintained a large presence in the area and American Army trucks were coming and going from the compound.

Heavy machinery was pulling up the smashed pieces of the building, strewn akimbo by the blast.

Tuesday's bomb blasted a 6-foot-deep crater in the ground, shredding the facade of the Canal Hotel housing U.N. offices and stunning an organization that had been welcomed by many Iraqis in contrast to the U.S.-led occupation forces.

Except for a new concrete wall built recently, U.N. officials at the headquarters refused heavy security because the U.N. "did not want a large American presence outside," said Salim Lone, the U.N. spokesman in the Iraqi capital.

"There are so many people who are still missing," said Veronique Taveau, a spokesperson for the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator.

Fifteen bodies in white bags were counted by a U.N. worker at the hotel, and a survey of Baghdad hospitals by The Associated Press found five other people who had died in the blast. Taveau said Wednesday the U.N. figure for the dead was 17 and 100 people were wounded.

Taveau said the U.N. had temporarily suspended operations on Wednesday and that travel arrangements were being made for employees wanting to leave the country.

Iraqis who work for the U.N. were told to stay at home. Foreign workers were directed to stay in the lodgings that are scattered in many small hotels around the capital.

"Moving outside is forbidden," said Salam Quzaz, from the United Nations Development Program.

Lone denied persistent reports Wednesday that the U.N. was pulling foreign workers out of Iraq.

"The news that we are evacuating to Jordan is not true. We are only evacuating those who cannot be treated in Iraq and those workers scheduled to leave," Lone said.

He said all U.N. agencies working in the country would meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss the world body's next steps in Iraq.

The 4:30 p.m. Tuesday killed the office of the top U.N. envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, where he was meeting with other U.N. officials.

Vieira de Mello a 55-year-old veteran diplomat serving in what one U.N. spokesman called the world body's toughest assignment was wounded and trapped in the rubble, and workers gave him water as they tried to extricate him. Hours later, the United Nations announced his death.

"Those who killed him have committed a crime, not only against the United Nations but against Iraq itself," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement, calling the Brazilian diplomat "an outstanding servant of humanity."

U.N. and U.S. officials called the bombing a "terrorist attack," but there was no immediate claim of responsibility. The bombing came nearly two weeks after a car exploded and killed 19 people at the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad and after a string of dramatic attacks on oil and water pipelines in Iraq.

Like the remote-controlled explosion at the Jordan Embassy, the suicide bombing on the U.N. headquarters focused on a high-profile target with many civilians inside and resembled attacks blamed on Islamic militants elsewhere in the world. It was far more sophisticated than the guerrilla attacks that have plagued U.S. forces, featuring hit-and-run shootings carried out by small bands or remote-control roadside bombs.

As FBI agents joined the investigation, Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who is rebuilding the Iraqi police force, told reporters that evidence suggested the attack was a suicide bombing.

But he said it was "much too early" to say if Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network was behind the attack. "We don't have that kind of evidence yet."

U.S. forces have been focusing on trying to put down Saddam Hussein loyalists thought to be behind the guerrilla campaign against American troops. But the military has also warned of foreign Islamic militants slipping into the country and has said an al-Qaida linked group, Ansar al-Islam, was a possible suspect in the Jordanian Embassy bombing.

Dia'a Rashwan, an expert on radical Islam at Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the attack fits "the ideology of al-Qaida. They consider the U.N. one of the international actors who helped the Americans to occupy Palestine and, later, Iraq."

In Tuesday's attack, a cement truck packed with twice the amount of explosives as the embassy blast detonated at the concrete wall outside the three-story Canal Hotel. The blast occurred while a news conference was under way in the building, where 300 U.N. employees had worked.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in Baghdad that the truck did not breach the wall that had been erected around the hotel within the past month. He said the truck was parked on an access road just outside the compound.

L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, walked through the scene of destruction as workers dug through the rubble with their hands. Bremer had tears in his eyes and hugged Hassan al-Salame, an adviser to Vieira de Mello.

"We will leave no stone unturned to find the perpetrators of this attack," he said.

One man had a yard-long, one-inch-thick aluminum rod driven into his face just below his right eye. He identified himself as a security consultant for the International Monetary Fund, saying he had just arrived in the country over the weekend.

The United Nations distributes humanitarian aid and is developing programs aimed at boosting Iraq's emerging free press, justice system and monitoring of human rights.

The Canal Hotel operates more as an office building than a hotel. The cafeteria is a popular place for humanitarian workers and journalists to meet.

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