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UN to use visit to mull return to Baghdad

UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations plans to send a small team to Baghdad to assess security conditions for a possible return of UN international staff who were pulled from Iraq in October, UN diplomats said yesterday.

Undersecretary-General Kieran Prendergast, who is in charge of political affairs, sent a letter to US Ambassador John D. Negroponte telling him about the decision and asking the US-led coalition for help providing security for the team, the diplomats said. The team would go to Iraq within two weeks.

The UN move comes days before a key meeting on Jan. 19 which Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called to determine what role the Iraqi Governing Council and the coalition want the United Nations to play as Iraq moves from US occupation to a democratically elected government.

The letter said the United Nations wants to upgrade security at its facilities in Baghdad and plans to resume flights to Baghdad in coming weeks, key prerequisites for any large-scale return of UN staff, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The United States has pressed for the return of UN international staff to support the coalition's plan to transfer power to a provisional Iraqi government by June 30.

Prendergast met Negroponte late yesterday to discuss the Jan. 19 meeting, which will be attended by three members of the Iraqi Governing Council and a coalition representative.

Annan ordered UN international staff to leave Iraq in October after two bombings at UN headquarters and a spate of attacks targeting humanitarian organizations. The headquarters bombing, in August, killed 22 people including Annan's top envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Annan has said repeatedly that security conditions in Iraq remain too dangerous for international staffers to return. Prendergast said Annan had approved the deployment of two military advisers and two security officers to strengthen contacts with the coalition in order to supervise security improvements on UN facilities from a safe interim location in Baghdad.

The letter also said the four-member team would provide additional support to Iraqis who are still working for the United Nations, the diplomats said. Fewer than 1,000 Iraqis are currently working for the world body.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard neither confirmed nor denied the report. UN officials have stressed their concern about possible threats to Iraqis still working for the United Nations in the country.

Annan announced last month that the world body was setting up a regional base in Nicosia, Cyprus, and a smaller office in Amman, Jordan, to deal with UN activities in Iraq.

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