by Thalif Deen
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- After long refusing to risk its workers in violence-ridden Iraq, the United Nations has reversed its stance and is planning to expand its international staff in the country in time for upcoming elections set for late January.
"The current ceiling of 59 international staffers is not adequate for what we want to do," UN Spokesman Fred Eckhard told reporters Dec. 15. But he declined to give specific numbers on the proposed expansion.
The limit was set by the UN security coordinator in the context of the deteriorating security environment in Iraq, where more than 1,200 soldiers of the U.S.-led coalition that invaded the country in March 2003 have been killed, along with thousands of Iraqi civilians.
The secretary-general withdrew most of the 650 UN international staff from Iraq following a terrorist attack on the UN compound in Baghdad in August 2003 that killed 22 people, including top envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
"The United States has been almost hysterical in getting the United Nations to take action to legitimize the election enterprise in Iraq," Jim Paul of the New York-based Global Policy Forum told IPS.
Paul said he was not sure how much the recent political and media campaign against Annan affected the UN chief's decision to send employees to Iraq.
Over the last few weeks, right-wing politicians and media in the United States have demanded Annan resign over widespread charges of fraud and mismanagement of Iraq's now-defunct, UN-supervized "oil-for--food" program.
"We were not consulted on this," a spokesman for the UN Staff Union told IPS. "We still stand by the letter we sent to the secretary-general last month," he added, requesting anonymity.
In that letter, both the union and another employee body, the Federation of International Civil Servants, appealed to Annan's "good judgment to ensure that no further staff members be sent to Iraq, and that those already deployed be instructed to leave as soon as possible."
The two unions said they were cognizant of the "extreme political pressures that you face" and "while we understand that the people of Iraq deserve the support and assistance of the international community, we cannot condone the deployment of UN staff in view of the unprecedented high level of risk to the safety and security of staff."
The two unions represent over 60,000 employees, including those working in UN development and humanitarian agencies overseas.
The world body now has about 210 international personnel in Iraq, of which 150 are part of a Fijian protection force and about 60 are electoral experts. Of the latter group, only 20 are from the United Nations while the remaining 40 are from Europe, mostly from Britain.
Under the proposed plan, the United Nations is likely to increase the number of electoral experts and other personnel by 30, bringing the total number on the ground to about 200m including the protection force, said Eckhard.
He added that Annan said he is expanding the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in order to help implement the mandate given by the UN Security Council -- to assist the Iraqis to conduct the U.S.-mandated nation-wide elections on Jan. 30.
The secretary-general has directed that "first steps" be taken to establish a UNAMI presence in two politically troubled provinces: Basra and Erbil.
He plans to initially send a "small liaison detachment" of some four persons (military, security and support) to each of the two locations to assess and prepare appropriate and secure living and working conditions, according to Eckhard.
Thereafter, "and depending on the circumstances," perhaps four or five personnel will be deployed to assist and work with local authorities and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
"We are not monitoring the elections but simply providing technical assistance to the Independent Electoral Commission and the Iraqi government," added the spokesman.
Annan had earlier refused to send more UN personnel into Iraq because of the increasing violence of the insurgency.
Responding to Iraqi and U.S. pressure, he told reporters in October that he would not send staff to the country unless there was "genuine improvement in the security environment or solid arrangements for the protection of the staff."
In an interview with the Al-Arabia TV network Tuesday, Iraq's interim President Ghazi al-Yawar said pointedly: "The lack of security is not a sufficient justification for the United Nations to stay away from Iraq."
Annan is scheduled to meet outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.
"There has been a pattern of heavy pressure against the secretary-general," Global Policy Forum's Paul added, both from the Bush administration calling for a bigger UN presence in Iraq, and from UN unions to remain out of the country.
"Annan obviously was caught between these two opposing forces," he added.
Paul was skeptical that Annan had caved in to Iraqi pressure. "Iraq has zero influence on the secretary-general," he said, adding, "it's the United States that has been putting the pressure on him."
With only six more weeks to go before the Jan. 30 elections, Paul wondered: "What really can the UN do in so short a time?"
He said that even if Annan decides to send an additional 30 employees, "it will take two weeks for them to pack their bags, take a slow boat to Kuwait, clear customs there and reach Baghdad -- perhaps when the elections are over."
He suggested the decision could be part of a political ploy -- "an empty gesture" -- that would keep everyone happy, including the Bush administration.
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