Panel cites U.N. security lapses in Iraq headquarters bombing

Scathing report indicates U.N. ignored warnings, failed to protect staff

October 23, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

UNITED NATIONS - A panel appointed by the United Nations to investigate the bombing of its Baghdad headquarters on Aug. 19 said yesterday that the organization failed to properly assess the security situation in Iraq and adequately respond to warnings, including an intelligence report that said the building could be the target of an attack.

"The U.N. security management system failed in its mission to provide adequate security to U.N. staff in Iraq," the seven-member panel, led by Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland, said in its scathing report.

The panel also determined that the United Nations' general security management system is "dysfunctional" and "provides little guarantee of security to U.N. staff in Iraq or other high-risk environments and needs to be reformed."

The August bombing, thought to be the work of militants loyal to the regime of Saddam Hussein, killed 22 people at the U.N. headquarters, including the chief envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The attack, coupled with a second bombing outside the Baghdad headquarters on Sept. 22, prompted Secretary- General Kofi Annan to pull all but a skeleton staff out of Iraq.

In the days before the bombing, U.N. security officials received information about "an imminent bomb attack" near the headquarters, the report said. "It was also reported that other information was available around mid-July that the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was under threat from a group loyal to the former regime," the report said. A security report on Aug. 19 specifically referred to the danger of attacks by vehicles loaded with explosives.

But U.N. management "did not take adequate increased measures to protect its staff and premises," the panel reported.

The authors of the report also pointed to the "ambiguous" day-to-day coordination between the U.N. mission and the coalition authorities, who, as the occupying power, had formal responsibility for the security of U.N. staff.

The report noted that U.N. personnel asked coalition forces "on several occasions" to withdraw their security presence from around the headquarters, but failed to request alternative security arrangements. Senior U.N. management, the panel said, "was uneasy with this highly visible military presence."

Among the defenses set up by the Americans, and removed at the request of the United Nations, was a 5-ton truck blocking access to the service road the bomber used to reach the headquarters. Later, the military laid concertina wire across the access road, but U.N. officials requested that it be removed, too.

In addition, de Mello's military adviser, who served as the liaison to the U.S.-led coalition forces, was not allowed to participate in the coalition's security briefings, though the report noted that he received security information "in an ad-hoc manner."

De Mello also ignored advice from two teams of U.N. security experts to move his office, the report said. The office was close to the spot where the bomb, a truck laden with explosives, was detonated. De Mello, however, "declined and stated that he would leave the matter to his successor."

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