The United Nations is dispatching a team of security experts to Baghdad to prepare for a possible large-scale return of foreign U.N. staff to Iraq.
In a letter to U.S. officials, Undersecretary General Kieran Prendergast says the United Nations will send a four-person security assessment team to Baghdad in the next couple of weeks. The letter was sent following a meeting last Friday at which U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte urged Secretary General Kofi Annan to return international U.N. staff to Iraq as quickly as possible.
U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard would not confirm details of the letter. But he made clear that preparations are under way. "We have already made clear that we're not going to disclose details of staff levels in Iraq, which fluctuate according to need as well as security considerations. However, the secretary general is very mindful of our obligation to provide for the security of the U.N.'s national staff in Iraq, and we're making provisions for this accordingly," he said.
Secretary General Annan has summoned top leaders of the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led Coalition in Iraq for a meeting next Monday at U.N. headquarters. The January and February presidents of the governing council have said they will attend. But the United States has been non-committal about who its representative will be.
U.N. officials are hoping Washington will send the chief U.S. administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer. The timing of the announcement of the security assessment team's dispatch to Iraq is clearly intended to influence Washington's decision.
Mr. Annan pulled foreign staff out of Iraq in late October following two bomb attacks on U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, one of which killed 22 people.
Last month, the secretary general said he needed a clearer picture of what role the U.S.-led coalition wanted the world body to play in Iraq before deciding whether the intended mission would be worth the risk. He has repeatedly said that Iraq remains too dangerous to make a large-scale commitment of foreign staff.
The world body's operations in Iraq, most of them humanitarian, are currently being administered by a staff of fewer than 1,000 Iraqi U.N. employees.