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US loses face as UN staff scamper out of Iraq

United Nations, Sept. 25 (Reuters): Citing security concerns after two attacks on its Baghdad offices, the UN said today it was pulling out 19 of its 105 international staffers from Iraq and more would follow.

The decision to withdraw international staff, even temporarily, was a blow to US claims the security situation in Iraq was under control.

The White House said today the United Nations still has an important role to play in Iraq despite the withdrawl of staff. “We certainly understand their concerns and understand their reasons for pursuing a reduction, but they have a vital role to play and we want them to continue to play that vital role,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard called the shift of the 19 staffers to nearby Amman, Jordan,“a temporary redeployment of international staff in Iraq.”

He said 42 international staff remained for now in Baghdad and 44 in northern Iraq, down from 105, and “these numbers can be expected to shrink further over the next few days.”

“This is not an evacuation, just a further downsizing, and the security situation in the country remains under constant review,” Eckhard said.

The UN announced the shift after secretary-general Kofi Annan called senior aides to his office to weigh a recommendation by UN security staff that all international employees be pulled out of Iraq.

Annan has agonised over staff security since an August 19 suicide bomb attack on UN Baghdad headquarters — where about 300 people worked — killed 22 people including his close friend Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of the UN mission.

A second bomb attack on the compound on Monday killed an Iraqi policemen and wounded 19 including local UN workers.

The UN staff union issued an angry statement after the second attack, renewing a demand for the withdrawal of all UN personnel. “How much more can our staff take in Iraq'” the union asked.

Before the August 19 bombing, about 600 international staff worked in Iraq, helped by some 4,000 Iraqi employees.

UN officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted that shifting staff to Amman did not mean the UN was turning its back on Iraq.

“They are not going to abandon Iraq. There would be a plan to go back in at the earliest possible moment,” once security was assured, one official said. “Plans for re-entry are already being drafted.”

Iraq leader dies

Akila al-Hashemi, a member of Iraq’s US-appointed governing council, has died from wounds sustained in a gun attack on Saturday, the head of the country’s US-led administration said today. “On behalf of the Coalition Provisional Authority and all its members, I offer condolences to her family, her colleagues and the people of Iraq,” Paul Bremer said. Gunmen fired on a car carrying Hashemi, a career diplomat, near her home in a Baghdad suburb on Saturday.

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