UN to pull staff out of Iraq in wake of suicide bombings

Local teenagers recruited after rising levels of violence by resistance fighters throughout the country add to pressure on Pentagon
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The United Nations is to withdraw its remaining international staff from Baghdad as a growing campaign of suicide bombings and violent attacks provokes a sense of despair in the Iraqi capital.

A fresh exodus of international aid organisations gathered pace yesterday when it became clear that suicide bombers were preying on aid workers because they are soft targets and attacking them is an effective means of isolating the United States in Iraq.

Officially the UN said its withdrawal was temporary. In Geneva Marie Heuze, a UN spokeswoman, said staff were being recalled "for consultations" on the security arrangements that "we would need to take to operate in Iraq". But in the absence of a sudden improvement in security in the near future, the decision seems to be tantamount to an ending of the UN's presence in the Iraqi capital.

Many believe Iraq is facing years of turmoil. The UN was dealt a fatal blow in August when its headquarters was bombed and 22 people were killed, including the UN special representative Sergio Vieira De Mello. International staff numbers were reduced from 300 to about 60 overseeing the oil for food programme.

The decision represents a serious setback to the occupation. Yesterday an American supply train was bombed west of Baghdad and an explosion rocked a row of shops in the city, killing two people.

The Red Cross has already said it will further reduce its staff in Iraq. On Monday suicide bombers attacked its headquarters in the worst single day of violence since the overthrow of Saddam. Twelve people died in the attack ­ the first in the Red Cross's 140-year history ­ including two ICRC security guards. In all 34 died and 200 were wounded in Monday's carnage.

Other aid groups including the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières have been evaluating their operations since Monday's attacks.

The rocket attack on al-Rashid Hotel on Sunday followed by the suicide bombings, which killed 34 Iraqis, have provoked a sense of unease in the capital. Many parents are reported to have taken their children out of school.

In response to the unprecedented levels of violence, the Bush administration has ordered the training of Iraqi security police to be accelerated, to put police swiftly on the streets of Baghdad and in areas where American forces have come under attack from resistance fighters.

But officials of the US military administration are concerned that this could mean putting armed 18 and 19-year-olds, with just a few weeks' training, in the front line. And Iraqi police feel that their main duty should be to protect Iraqi civilians against criminals and not combating anti-American guerrillas.

"We don't set up joint check points or go on joint patrols with the Americans," said Lieutenant-Colonel Jalal Sabri, the commander of 1,500 police in Fallujah, a town 35 miles west of Baghdad where there have been frequent attacks on US troops. A suicide bomber had blown himself up, killing six civilians not far from the police station on Tuesday, and yesterday his men looked edgy and wary of cars driving near them.

The drawbacks in President George Bush's plan to rely more on the Iraqi police were further underlined in Fallujah, where the sentry on duty at the entrance to the police station could be heard singing a patriotic song from the old regime praising Saddam Hussein.

As US hopes of encouraging large contingents of Pakistani, Moroccan or Turkish troops to Iraq have withered, President Bush has concentrated on making more use of Iraqi troops to combat guerrillas.

But Lt-Col Sabri was unconvinced. "We work very independently from the Americans," he commented. "We don't know anything about the resistance. The criminals sometimes shoot at us but for the most part they leave us alone. We have a weekly meeting with the Americans in the mayor's office."

Another member of the Fallujah force said one of their current tasks was to take away dead and wounded Iraqis after ambushes and attacks. He complained: "When somebody shoots at the Americans they shoot back at everything and often there are many casualties that we take to the morgue or the hospital."

Fallujah is a notoriously militant area with rebel attacks on US forces often averaging one a day. But in other towns in Iraq the police are also wary of being labelled as collaborators, conscious that they will have to live in Iraq when the Americans have gone.