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Special panel rebukes UN for poor security

UNITED NATIONS -- An independent panel accused the United Nations yesterday of major security failures that put hundreds of staff members at risk and caused unnecessary casualties when UN headquarters in Baghdad was bombed Aug. 19. It criticized UN officials for not requesting security from US-led coalition forces.

The panel's report also cited widespread violations of UN security procedures, inadequate assessments of threats to the United Nations after the US-led war in Iraq and immediately before the bombing, and a lax attitude toward security issues by UN leaders and management.

Still, the report stopped short of holding any individual accountable.

"The failure of the UN system to comply with its own security regulations and directives left the organization and its staff and premises open and vulnerable to the type of attack that was perpetrated on Aug. 19, 2003," the report said.

In the bombing, a flatbed truck carrying 2,200 pounds of explosives was detonated next to the Canal Hotel, where the United Nations had its Baghdad headquarters. Twenty-two people were killed, including top UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 150 were injured.

"The implementation of basic security procedures, such as the protection of the perimeter of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, especially after receiving credible information on imminent bomb attacks in the area, might have saved the lives of a number of UN staff," the report said.

Instead, it said, UN senior management in Baghdad on several occasions asked US-led coalition forces, the only credible security force in the country, to remove military positions and equipment from the vicinity of the hotel.

"In view of the predominantly political character of the UN presence and history in Iraq, security threats should have been expected from the outset, and proper security arrangements, in this case from the coalition forces, should have been requested and implemented," the panel said.

After the attack, the UN Staff Union, which represents 5,000 staff members worldwide, called for an independent investigation into security in Baghdad. Secretary General Kofi Annan launched an internal investigation and asked former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari to lead an independent panel.

Ahtisaari's report will be studied closely "and steps taken to ensure early implementation of its recommendations," said UN deputy spokesman Hua Jiang.

The panel said that security still needs to be improved for remaining UN staff in Iraq. Most international staff were ordered to leave after the Aug. 19 attack and a second bombing outside UN headquarters on Sept. 22.

The report also pointed out that the Security Council's unanimous approval of a resolution last week authorizing deployment of a multinational force in Iraq offers a possible alternative for security, so that the UN could return to Iraq without having to rely on the US-led coalition.

"Such forces will need to offer adequate security coverage for UN operations in the field, including control of UN perimeters, security of UN movements, and the close protection of UN staff as required," it said.

The panel called for independent professionals to review and reform the UN security system, for clear UN guidance to ensure staff security, and a professional assessment of security risks for worldwide UN operations.

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