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U.N. Builds Its Iraq Presence With Stealth, Caution

Times Staff Writer

Basma Khateeb keeps her head down and her business cards deep in her handbag.

To her bosses in Jordan and colleagues in the heavily protected Green Zone, she is the Iraq program coordinator of the United Nations Development Fund for Women. But to the Iraqis she meets, she’s the nondescript woman with short brown hair sitting in the back of the room discreetly taking notes.

“I take a very low profile when I attend any event,” said Khateeb, 46, a British-educated Iraqi who is in search of women’s rights groups to which she can give U.N. grants of $5,000 to $10,000. “You never introduce yourself to anybody as with the United Nations. You move around with an armed driver. You never trust the police, or anyone in the government. You change cars and routes.”

Two years after the Aug. 19, 2003, bombing of their Baghdad headquarters, insurgency now gripping Iraq, the world body has made a stealthy return to the country most of its workers had left. Often operating as a virtually clandestine organization, it is quietly handing out development funds, brokering political deals and working to increase the size of its staff in the Iraqi capital from 230 to 300.

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But it is a changed U.N. mission, largely confined to the Green Zone and operating undercover in a land plagued by kidnappers and suicide bombers. Its security guidelines prevent all but Iraqi staff from leaving the zone without heavily armed escorts.

“Aug. 19 forced us to take account of the reality and that we were a major target here and that we could no longer operate in the manner that we had hoped we could,” Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, the Pakistani diplomat who heads the U.N.'s mission to Iraq, said in a recent interview. “Security, which has always been important, has to be an overriding concern.”

In the days leading up to the bombing, the U.N. had just begun to overcome the controversy surrounding its differences with the United States over the invasion of Iraq and was back on the ground and busy at work.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, a charismatic and dapper Brazilian, had arrived to head the mission and was energizing the U.N.'s 900 employees in Iraq. U.N. workers, who had left Baghdad to avoid the U.S.-led invasion, had returned, cruising the streets of the capital again in their gleaming white Toyota Land Cruisers. Crews of young, jobless Iraqi men hired by a U.N. agency were scouring the streets, picking up litter and cleaning up parks.

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U.N. officials were at a news conference, beginning to tell reporters about their efforts to rid Iraq’s war zones of deadly mines, when the massive truck bomb exploded, destroying the headquarters, killing De Mello and 21 others, and signaling the end of any hope that Iraq’s reconstruction would proceed smoothly.

After another car bomb struck near the compound a month later, on Sept. 22, Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered most non-Iraqi personnel out of Baghdad. The U.N. also began laying off Iraqi employees.

The development and reconstruction projects the U.N. had initiated were scaled back or ended. Other international aid agencies and nonprofit organizations followed suit, beginning an exodus of foreign officials and groups that left Iraq’s reconstruction as well as counterinsurgency efforts to the U.S. military and the American taxpayers.

Since then, the U.N. has made a slow comeback in Iraq. Its officials helped install the country’s interim government last year and provided technical support and training for Iraqis organizing the Jan. 30 National Assembly election.

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The world body’s mission here now totals 700, with officials scattered in Kuwait and Jordan as well as Iraq. It provides Iraqi ministries with advisors on issues such as corruption and offers training courses for government officials. It is helping Iraqis draft a constitution by translating constitutions of other countries, such as Indonesia, into Arabic. It also is supplying laptop computers and a legal reference library to the panel drafting the charter, part of a $24-million U.N. effort.

The U.N. also has played a role in getting Iraq’s squabbling factions to talk, officials say.

“Part of our mandate is to promote compromise and reconciliation,” said Qazi, the Pakistani, whose spacious Green Zone villa, protected by soldiers from Fiji, is near the U.S. Embassy compound. “Not a day goes by when people aren’t here for informal get-togethers. Everybody from all the parties has not only been here once but several times.”

The 63-year-old Qazi also has made trips to the southern city of Najaf, where he held meetings with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, and Muqtada Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric whose militia battled U.S. forces last year.

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Still, some people criticize the U.N.'s approach as too hands-off and cosmetic.

Younadam Kanna, a member of the constitutional committee, said he wished U.N. workers were out on the streets educating Iraqis about the constitution instead of giving logistical support and making token diplomatic gestures and sporadic efforts at training.

“They just came in with some laptops and they say, ‘We are contributing,’ ” he said. “They told me you can get a computer. I said, ‘Thanks very much, I already have a computer.’

“You can’t train 10 people here, 10 people there,” he said. “It’s not enough.”

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Khateeb is among a cadre of Iraqis doing the U.N.'s work beyond the Green Zone. Twice a day she calls her husband, to reassure him and her three daughters that she’s OK. There are times when her boss, in Jordan, sees images of violence in Baghdad on TV and urges her to stay home for the day.

She’s haunted by the death of Margaret Hassan, the British-Iraqi head of Care International who was slain by insurgents last year.

But Khateeb, who is the only regular employee of her agency in Iraq, said there was no other way to do meaningful work here.

“If you’re sitting in the Green Zone, you can’t do the work,” she said. “If you want to know the Iraqi people and know their heartbeat, you need to be with them, stand with them in the field. Otherwise, you can’t really say you’re helping them.”

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