No One is Safe---Relections on the Bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad

Report by Anita Sharma, Deputy Director of the Conflict Prevention Project. On a leave of absence from the Center, Sharma is currently working with the International Organization for Migration in Amman Jordan.

Sep 04, 2003

For those of us working in Iraq, the attack on the UN
headquarters confirmed what we already knew: there is no security in Iraq. The strong rhetoric about the political considerations of remaining in Iraq to help the Iraqi people and carrying on the mission of fallen colleagues contrasts with practical insecurities on the ground.

The blast was not unexpected and many had predicted this tragedy. From the American military guarding the post, to UN staff, to NGOs and Iraqis living and working near the UN Headquarters, also known as the Canal Hotel, all thought it was extremely vulnerable. As the military beefed up force protection and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) heightened security around its headquarters, business as usual continued at the UN. For the most part this was understandable, as a humanitarian agency, the United Nations relies on its public stance of neutrality and it had never been the recipient of such a horrific act. And while a small deployment of an Air Defense Assault Unit patrolled the entrances, their limited military presence around the headquarters was tolerated specifically because it was not intrusive.

The attack on the Canal Hotel did not require extensive insider information by former Saddam intelligence officers acting as security guards, as reported by FBI sources. Indeed one needed only to drive the busy road alongside the hotel to see the hundred or so cars parked haphazardly in a make-shift parking lot just outside the main entrance or stand on a nearby bridge to learn the vulnerabilities along the perimeter of the security wall. Unfortunately it seems that Mr. de Mello's office was located precisely at the weakest point of the building and the attackers are likely rejoicing at their good luck rather than their superior intelligence.

For many such risk was acceptable because, until recently, attacks were minimal, not lethal or directed at military targets. Since arriving in Iraq in early May, my job with the Iraq Transition Initiative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been to coordinate and finance reconstruction and rehabilitation projects in many sectors, including schools, health facilities, courthouses and other community assistance projects.

Such work requires a lot of mobility and I had been able to move with relative ease throughout my area of responsibility in the south of the country. Obviously in a phase four (five being the highest) security environment, safety is always a concern. On field missions, we took precautionary measures such as planned movements, constant communications and good intelligence about potential trouble spots. With projects under way all over Iraq, excellent coordinated efforts by the United Nations, NGOs, the
US Agency for International Development, coalition forces, contractors, and CPA, not to mention our Iraqi counterparts, were bringing tangible results.

This field work consumed most of my time and I had few hours in the day to think about the bigger picture of whether the war was justified and the potential for security in the Middle East. I concentrated on developing programs to benefit the immediate needs of Iraqis, like rehabbing electrical and sewage facilities and to give them a voice in their new society by providing equipment to a fledgling human rights society.

At some point this changed as unrealistic expectations, missed
opportunities, and avoidable power and fuel shortages came together in the oppressive heat to boil over into escalating violence. While I was in the United States on vacation earlier this summer, attackers opened fire on an IOM convoy driving from Baghdad to Hillah, 80 km south. The driver was killed and a passenger wounded and the next day a driver for the International Red Cross met a similar fate on the same stretch of highway.

I responded to people's questions about the security situation and their concerns about my personal safety by saying that I believed such incidents were rare and unlikely to continue. Until then most attacks had been directed toward coalition forces that at least have the ability to protect
themselves and respond with fire. Other violent acts, including a rocket-propelled grenade launched against the IOM office in Mosul, grenade launches against Mercy Corps and stone throwing at vehicles in Samawa and Diwaniya may have frightened people but didn't hurt them.

In addition I said that the news back home wasn't accurate--Iraq wasn't as dangerous as the news reports suggested. Very few stories relayed the good news; Iraqis feeling comfortable to
walk in the streets, markets reopened, facilities rebuilt. Precisely because of the work we were undertaking and the
commitment of the Iraqi people and those here to help them, I felt that our work could continue.

Still, we were reluctant to recognize the security reality. After the incident near Hillah, our staff of four internationals moved to Baghdad, not necessarily because it was safer in the capital, but because a potential evacuation was more feasible. Recognizing that everyone was a potential target and that our royal
blue SUVs were especially conspicuous, we restricted our movements around Baghdad, but still traveled the city in relative confidence.

When the call for help came over the UN radio I was en route to a NGO coordination meeting. Shock and sadness replaced my disbelief as we learned there were multiple casualties. I have worked in Iraq for four months and since moving to Baghdad had lived in the tents adjacent to the Canal Hotel. I had gotten to know many of the soldiers responsible for guarding the compound. They were the first on the scene to assist with the rescue and by many accounts the quick response and brave efforts by the military and UN staff unharmed by the blast, saved many lives. But the extent of the damage could have been prevented, if not deterred. For months security officers for the various agencies had been calling for better protection around the hotel and military requests to increase the number of soldiers at the entrances, including near the explosion site, fell on deaf ears. The desire to remain open and non-threatening overruled security concerns and as soft-targets, the UN was extremely vulnerable.

It's officially business as usual in Baghdad today--the streets are crowded, UN offices (those outside of the compound) have re-opened and humanitarian and reconstruction workers continue their jobs. But for many the work will have to continue either in Jordan, Cyprus, Kuwait, the northern areas of Iraq or the tenuous safety of the Baghdad offices. Without better security everyone is now a target and as the news suggests, the killings have not, and are unlikely to cease soon. I'd like nothing more than to continue working in Iraq but to do our jobs properly we need access and mobility and unfortunately that's just not possible. Now we too are targets.

As Mr. DeMello said as he lay dying amidst the rubble, we cannot walk away. I'm lucky; I have the luxury of leaving. The soldiers working in uncertain conditions and Iraqis who have grown accustomed to 35 years of insecurity are not so fortunate. Neither are the 23 people who lost their lives at the UN
Headquarters.

Anita Sharma is on leave of absence from the Conflict Prevention Project
of the Woodrow Wilson Center and is working with the International
Organization for Migration. She wrote this article in her own capacity
and her views do not necessarily reflect those of either organization.

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