The United Nations is temporarily withdrawing all international staff from Baghdad. The pullout will reduce the total U.N. contingent in Iraq to fewer than 50, almost all of them in the north.
The dozen or so international staff keeping up U.N. operations in the Iraqi capital will be leaving soon. The group will fly to Cyprus for security consultations with a team from U.N. headquarters in New York.
The withdrawal decision was made in the wake of Monday's deadly bombing at the Baghdad offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. But U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe emphasized that the pullout is part of a continuing review of security conditions, and does not mean the world body is closing its Baghdad offices.
"I would like to stress, this is a temporary relocation and part of an ongoing process of a constant review of the situation on the ground, given volatile conditions, and does not represent a policy decision to disengage from Iraq," she said.
Briefing reporters on the withdrawal, Ms. Okabe said approximately 40 international staffers will remain in Iraq. Almost all of them are in the north, working on closing out the U.N. Oil-for-Food program, which is to be handed over to coalition forces next month.
Security is considered much better in the north than in Baghdad, where bombing and attacks on coalition forces have become an almost daily occurrence.
Ms. Okabe revealed few details of the security consultations, or when the staff would leave Baghdad. But she made clear the decision to move had been a hasty one.
"The consultations will take place in the region," she said. "The team will be dispatched from headquarters and will go to the region. They are coming out of Baghdad, so the team from New York will go to the region. The team from New York has not been appointed yet."
Ms. Okabe said Secretary-General Kofi Annan remains committed to keeping up the U.N. presence in Iraq. But she outlined the difficulties he faces in deciding whether to send international staff into danger zones.
"The secretary-general is trying to strike the right balance, between being on the ground to be able to provide that assistance," she said. "The U.N. has been asked to play a vital role, but we can't do that if we don't have staff on the ground, and in order to have staff on the ground, we have to ensure their security is ensured."
She said the 4,000 local U.N. staff in Iraq will continue to carry out the world body's mission as best they can. The vast majority of international staff were withdrawn following the August 19 attack on U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. Further pullouts were ordered after an independent panel appointed by the secretary-general concluded that the entire U.N. security apparatus is dysfunctional, and recommended a complete overhaul before further staff commitments in danger zones.