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At UN's Baghdad Bomb Memorial, Marginal Voices Question Ban's Iraq Expansion

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, August 17 -- At the UN's ceremony to commemorate the truck bombing of its headquarters in Baghdad four years ago, Ban Ki-moon said that the "recent decision to renew and expand the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq's mandate is an opportunity to carry forward the work of Sergio Vieira de Mello and his colleagues" killed in the blast. That was the official line. Mr. Ban and his entourage, including UN Development Program Administrator Kemal Dervis, swept back through the UN's lobby. Mr. Ban and Dervis were scheduled to meet at 11 a.m..

            In the wake of this official talk of UN expansion in Iraq, other voices emerged. Surrounded by cameras from CNN, Al Arabia, NHK and Al Jazeerah, the UN's Francis Mead said that on August 19, 2003 he was working for the UN News Service, writing about unexploded ordnance in Iraq. He asked rhetorically, "Can the UN just walk away?"

            Walking twenty feet from the media scrum, Inner City Press interviewed Denis J. Halliday, formerly the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. Here on the margins a quite different story was being told.  Mr. Halliday, who quit his position, said of the current plan, "I'm not happy with the UN collaborating with an occupying force." His comments on the 2003 bombing were themselves explosive.

            "The UN was the most hated institution in Iraq," he said, having imposed sanctions and "collaborated" with an invader and "humiliated" the country. "If we don't stand by our Charter, if we collaborate with an illegal invasion, we pay the price."

            "We were na´ve," Halliday self-diagnosed, "including myself. I sat in that office... We never believed we were vulnerable."

            Inner City Press asked him about the still-withheld UN Threat Assessment report compiled with the UN's Bruno Henn and Leo Powell in the summer of 2003. Click here for Inner City Press' first story on that.

Ceremony at UN, August 17, 2007

            "I hear the Americans also made an assessment," Hallidan answered.  Paul "Bremer was unhappy with what Sergio was doing -- raising questions about torture, about mismanagement, about human rights violations by Americans vis-a-vis Iraqis.

            Halliday asked a rhetorical question: "who's responsible? Was it the Americans?"

            Most of the objections within the UN to expansion in Iraq are practical and not political, matters of safety and not diplomacy. Still, the UN Staff Council has passed its resolution calling on Ban Ki-moon to not expand, to in fact bring the UN staff there home. In his prepared remarks, Ban acknowledged "the fears and concerns some staff may have about any expansion." As he read that line, one staff member muttered about the clip on You Tube of Ban hiding behind the podium when a bomb went off in Baghdad. Click here to view. There was no chance to ask questions at Friday's memorial. On Monday, families of the victims will meet across the street from the UN. We intend to report from there.

  For now, in the third floor hall a longtime correspondent mused that Sergio Vieira de Mello "used to walk through here all the time, he was the most accessible person, he even told the journalists on the plane flying into Baghdad with him not to report when it got shot at, to cast Iraq in the best light possible." Rest in Peace.

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Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund, while UNDP won't answer.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540