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U.N. May Pull Out of Iraq Over Security Fears

Two organizations representing more than 60,000 United Nations staff members urged Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) on Wednesday to pull all U.N. staff out of Iraq because of the "unprecedented" risk to their safety and security.

In a joint letter to Annan, the staff organizations cited a dramatic escalation in attacks in Iraq and said the United Nations (search) regrettably "has become a direct target, one that is particularly prone to attacks by ruthless extremist terrorist factions."

"Just one staff member is one staff member too many in Iraq," they said. "We ... appeal to your 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."

Annan pulled all U.N. international staff out of Iraq a year ago, following two bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and a spate of attacks on humanitarian workers. The first bombing, on Aug. 22, 2003, killed the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello (search), and 21 others.

In August, the secretary-general allowed a small U.N. contingent to return to Baghdad and imposed a ceiling of 35 international staffers, but he has been under pressure to increase the number to help Iraq prepare for elections in January.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said the United Nations "will take note of this letter" but makes its determination about security based on advice from the U.N. security coordinator, who has limited U.N. international staff in Iraq to 35.

"We will need more than 35 in there to do what we want to do on the elections, but don't now see that that will be possible — at least it's not possible today," Eckhard said. "We keep this matter continually under review, in fact on a daily basis."

Richard Grenell, spokesman for U.S. Ambassador John Danforth, opposed any pullout.

"If some of the U.N. staff want to go against the wishes of Sergio Viera de Mello, we would hope the secretary-general would recognize that the U.N. exists to help governments in crises, like the 10,800 U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo or the 35 U.N. workers in Iraq," he said.

Robert Weisell, president of the Federation of International Civil Servants' Associations, and Rosemarie Waters, president of the Coordinating Committee for International Staff Unions and Associations, said they understand "the extreme political pressures calling for the presence (and an increased one at that) of the U.N. in Iraq."

"While we understand that the people of Iraq deserve the support and assistance of the international community, we cannot condone the deployment of U.N. staff to Iraq in view of the unprecedented high level of risk to the safety and security of staff," the letter signed by the two presidents said.

"Last year we witnessed the tragic death of 22 colleagues in Baghdad," they said. "We do not wish to witness the same again."

"We do not wish to contemplate the thought of U.N. staff being subject to hostage taking and threatened with execution at the mercy of those who know no mercy. We do not believe that we should wait for such extreme acts to realize that the time for deploying U.N. staff to Iraq has not yet arrived," the letter said.

In June, the Security Council authorized a separate force to protect U.N. staff, but so far not a single country has offered troops. This means that the main job of protecting the new U.N. envoy in Iraq, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, and his team has fallen to the U.S.-led coalition force.

The staff associations said the lack of a separate U.N. protection force makes it "even more difficult to comprehend why U.N. staff members would be sent to Iraq when troops are not being deployed in the country."

The two presidents said their organizations "will continue to oppose the deployment of staff to Iraq" until security conditions "have reached a level that is significantly stable and improved so as to allow for the safest and most suitable conditions under which staff may work."

Elsewhere, Fiji's U.N. Ambassador, Isikia Savua, told the council Wednesday that Fiji is preparing soldiers for deployment as security personnel for the U.N. in Iraq. He gave no details.