UN to return to Iraq after bombing - but from a base in Cyprus

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The Independent Online

With suicide bombers and assassins still targeting foreigners in Iraq, the United Nations has taken a step towards returning international staff to their aid mission in the country.

But the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has decided to base his team in Cyprus, a three-hour flight from Baghdad. The deaths of 22 people in the bombing of its headquarters in Baghdad still hang over the UN.

Mr Annan has been under pressure from the US and Britain to resume operations in Iraq. But with the Coalition Provisional Authority unable to protect its own soldiers, and with foreigners dying every day, the UN is cautious.

Foreign staff working for the UN and for other international organisations were pulled out last month after a series of bombings, including the one that killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN's special representative, on 19 August.

Mr Annan said in a report released yesterday: "Under the circumstances, it is difficult to envisage the United Nations operating with a large number of international staff inside Iraq in the near future, unless there is an unexpected and significant improvement in the security situation."

Mr Annan announced that Ross Mountain, a New Zealander, would lead a 40-strong team based in Nicosia, which would make periodic trips to Iraq. Another small unit will work out of Amman, Jordan.

While the UN will continue its humanitarian and development work in Iraq, plans for a political role remain unclear, despite pressure from the US and Britain for the UN to return. Britain has expressed hopes that a fresh mandate defining the UN operation could be adopted by the UN security council in "early spring".

The head of UN peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, said in an interview in New York that it would take time to define a mandate that could be agreed by all the parties involved. "The real issue is not more UN, or less UN, but what UN? It's not because you put up the UN flag that everything is going to be rosy," he said.

There is a feeling at the UN that the organisation suffered from an ambiguous mandate which gave Mr Vieira de Mello and his staff a "co-ordinating" role. There is also recognition that the UN is not universally popular in Iraq, where it was the enforcer of sanctions which meant hardship for much of the Iraqi population for more than a decade.

Mr Guéhenno said: "The UN is not looking for a role. If there is a sense from all the players that the UN can help, we would be happy to help, but on the basis of a clear task, not just for the sake of being there."