UNITED NATIONS — Troubled by a recent spate of violent attacks in Iraq, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Thursday he ordered U.N. international staff to leave Baghdad while the agency reassesses how to play the vital role envisioned by Washington and the Security Council.
Annan told The Associated Press he wants to discuss "a new phase" in postwar violence with the small international staff that stayed in Baghdad after two bombings at U.N. headquarters there, and then determine how to proceed.
At the moment, the United Nations has no plans to withdraw from Iraq but Annan left open that possibility if the situation dictates it.
"We want to reassess our position and our posture and also try and assess the new developments on the ground because we seem to be entering a new phase with the attacks of the last 72 hours, and we need to analyze for ourselves what the future holds and how we should conduct our own operations," Annan said.
"I think this sort of reflection is better done in a calmer place and then we determine what our next moves should be."
In recent days, Baghdad has been hit by a series of explosions, most of them caused by suicide bombers driving vehicles into police stations or other targets, including the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Authorities have blamed former President Saddam Hussein's loyalists or Islamic militants.
A highly critical report last week by a U.N.-appointed panel blamed "dysfunctional" security for causing unnecessary casualties in the August bombing at U.N. headquarters that killed 22 people, including Annan's top envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Annan drastically cut the more than 600-strong U.N. international staff in the wake of that Aug. 19 bombing and a Sept. 22 attack at U.N. headquarters that killed an Iraqi policeman.
There are currently about 60 U.N. international staff members in Iraq — less than 20 in Baghdad and 43 in northern Iraq — along with about 4,000 Iraqis working for the United Nations, U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.
Only the small contingent of international staffers in Baghdad has been asked to leave temporarily, but they have not left yet, she said.
A meeting with a team from U.N. headquarters probably will occur in Larnaca, Cyprus, but no timeframe has been set because the team still must be appointed, Okabe said.
Iraqi and international staff based in Irbil in the north, where they primarily are wrapping up the oil-for-food humanitarian program that ends Nov. 21, will stay on the job, she said.
The Staff Union, which represents more than 5,000 U.N. employees worldwide, said the pullout from Baghdad was overdue.
"We have been calling for a withdrawal from Iraq for a long time and it's about time the U.N. realized the security situation wasn't getting any better," union representative Guy Candusso said. "They should not return until security improves."
Despite pleas from the U.S. administration to stay, the ICRC and the humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said Wednesday they were pulling out workers.
But the Italian Red Cross said Thursday its workers will remain.
"We continue our activity," said Marino Capece Minutolo, director of the Italian mission. "We don't care about bombs and terrorists because we have a job here, a very important job."
The latest Security Council resolution on Iraq, adopted unanimously Oct. 16, gives the United Nations a bigger role in helping the country's transition to democracy — though not the primary role that France, Russia, Germany and some others wanted.
"The U.N. has been asked to play a vital role but we can't do that if we don't have staff on the ground, and in order to have staff on the ground we have to ensure that their security is ensured," Okabe said. "That's the situation we're confronting."
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