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Bomb investigators turn suspicions on Iraqi guards
Security staff at UN base were informers under Saddam
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
Saturday August 23, 2003
American officials investigating the suicide attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad said yesterday they suspected an inside job, and began questioning Iraqi security guards.
The new slant to the inquiry was prompted by the position and timing of the bomb, which was planted directly opposite the office of the late UN envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and exploded as an important meeting got under way, killing 24 people.
"Would the security guards have access to that information?" said Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who is the most senior US security official in Baghdad.
"Would the people who work in that building for any other reason have access to it? How were the schedules distributed? They're very basic parts of an investigation."
US officials were troubled by the realisation that the UN had kept security guards used during the Saddam era, which meant that they had almost certainly been informers for the regime's security services.
The investigations were not restricted to security guards.
"We want to know who was in the building - vendors, anyone who had to make deliveries, anyone who had to be in the building for any other reason," Mr Kerik said.
It was not surprising that early suspicion should fall on the Iraqi security personnel. Before the collapse of Saddam's regime, any Iraqi who came in contact with foreigners would have either been a member of the security agencies or been required to report to an intelligence handler at least once a week.
Many of the thousands of informers who maintained Saddam's republic of fear acted out of compulsion. But the Canal hotel, where the UN secretariat was based, was of special interest for the regime because it was the headquarters of the UN weapons inspectors.
The weapons experts were well aware that they were under constant Iraqi surveillance - not only by electronic devices but by the lightly armed Iraqi guards who stood at the gate and controlled access to the compound.
But after the UN evacuated its international staff on the eve of the war, some of those same guards helped to protect the compound. Yesterday US officials said they were check ing to see whether any had failed to turn up for duty on Tuesday, the day of the attack.
The accusations against local staff appear bound to aggravate tensions between the US and the UN, which had been engaged in a struggle over security before the blast.
Mr De Mello had refused to follow the Americans in sealing off the UN with heavy security, saying he did not want the organisation to be sealed off from Iraqis. There are also concerns about linking the UN too closely with the American armed forces in the minds of ordinary Iraqis.
"It's not that we have anything against the coalition forces, but you do realise the presence of coalition forces does intimidate some of the people we need to speak to and work with," Ramiro Lopes da Silva, the coordinator for UN humanitarian programmes, told reporters at the ruined compound.
As Mr De Mello's remains were flown home for burial yesterday, the UN evacuated about a third of its support staff to Cyprus and Jordan.
At the UN, the secretary general, Kofi Annan, told reporters that security teams were on their way to Baghdad to review protection measures.
"There is no doubt that we will have to strengthen our security," he said.
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