UN attack and boiling anger in the streets of Baghdad
NEW YORK-- After the deadly bomb attack on the UN compound in Baghdad, a lingering question reverberating throughout the United Nations building last week was: "Why us"?

Is the United Nations hated and despised in Iraq- as much as the United States is in the streets of Baghdad, Basra and Falluja? Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who cut short his vacation in Europe to rush back to headquarters, was pummelled with a barrage of questions as he entered the Secretariat building on Wednesday.

A visibly haggard Annan said the attack on the UN was not anticipated "given the fact that we have been in Iraq for over 12 years, and nothing like this had happened." But Denis Halliday, a former Assistant Secretary-General who was in charge of the UN's oil-for-food programme and has spent time with Iraqis for years, probably has part of the answer to the question hanging over the glass house by the East River. Halliday told me that the UN has had a blemished reputation in Iraq. Although there is no justification for killing Iraqi and international UN staff, Halliday said: "We must remember that many people in the region and in Iraq are rightly very angry with the UN for collaborating with the illegal US/UK invasion of Iraq."

"They have not forgotten that the United Nations has killed more Iraqis under 13 years of UN sanctions than Bush, Clinton and Bush ever did," he said. Coming from a senior UN official, that's pretty strong language, but obviously reflecting the realities on the ground. The first George Bush was US president when the 1991 Gulf War took place following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. President Bill Clinton, who succeeded him, was followed by the present President George W. Bush.

That accounts for the Bush-Clinton-Bush era during which the Iraqis continued to suffer the worst consequences of UN sanctions-- as all three US administrations stood by and watched as thousands of Iraqi children died for want of food, medicine or health care.
The US, which tried to punish Saddam Hussein, refused to lift the embargo, and in the process penalised the Iraqi people who were the unintended victims of what some called "dumb" sanctions.

Although the UN Secretariat or the staff per se are not to be blamed for the sins of member states who make all the highly-charged political decisions, the perspective of the UN in the outside world is of an organisation that cannot be trusted to stand up and be counted-- notwithstanding all its outstanding humanitarian work in the field. By and large, UN staff members are apolitical, and UN policy is determined by the 15-member Security Council and the 191-member General Assembly. But the outside world is not willing to listen to such political nuances of how the UN works.

The enduring political symbol of the UN is the Secretary-General. Having spoken to several Middle East experts and US academics last week, one can discern why the bomb attack was directed at an institution increasingly perceived as a political mouthpiece of the US. The suicide bombing killed Under-Secretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello, Annan's special representative in Iraq and one of the finest international civil servants in the UN hierarchy. The tragedy also claimed the lives of about 22 others, with over a 100 gravely injured.

"This is yet another indication of the very low esteem by which most Iraqis -- and indeed many Arabs and Muslims -- hold the United Nations," says As'ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at California State University.

"Kofi Annan has succeeded in turning this great organisation into a tool for US foreign policy, and the poor UN workers have paid a dear price" AbuKhalil said. He said that Annan has offered sermons in New York about the ills of Palestinian violence, "and yet the Arab world was astonished to see him silent over US bombing and occupation of one country after another: Afghanistan, and then Iraq".

Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois, was even more harsh calling the UN "a willing tool of the US". "The UN has come to be seen as part of the US/UK belligerent occupation regime in Iraq and thus an appropriate target for indigenous resistance," he said. Boyle dimissed Annan as "basically an errand boy for the United States".

At a time when the US is looking for more foreign troops from countries such as France, India, Pakistan, Turkey and Germany, the bomb attack might have also been intended as a warning against the dispatch of multilateral forces into Iraq. When the US launched its attack on Iraq last March, it did so in clear violation of the UN charter and in open defiance of a world body that refused to sanction an illegal war.

But five months later, Washington has returned to the same organisation in search of an exit strategy for 140,000 US troops bogged down in what appears to be a guerrilla war in an increasingly hostile Iraq. US Secretary of State Colin Powell came to the UN on Thursday to explore support for a new US resolution that would convince reluctant member states to provide troops for a proposed multinational force for Iraq.

Among other things, the force is expected to permit the United States to gradually withdraw some of its own besieged troops, whose death toll has increased to 63 since President George W. Bush declared an end to hostilities May 1. But the proposed resolution -- still in draft stage -- might be a non-starter because Washington has said it will not relinquish any of its military authority to foreign troops. "The issue of ceding authority is not an issue we have had to discuss today," a defiant Powell told reporters.

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