Turtle Bay

U.N.’s Baghdad fortress may never get built

The United Nations is considering dropping its plan to construct a $100 million, high-security facility in Baghdad to house and protect U.N. workers after American forces leave the country by the end of 2011, U.N. officials told Turtle Bay. The officials said that delays in starting construction had prompted the U.N. to instead consider renting ...

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The United Nations is considering dropping its plan to construct a $100 million, high-security facility in Baghdad to house and protect U.N. workers after American forces leave the country by the end of 2011, U.N. officials told Turtle Bay. The officials said that delays in starting construction had prompted the U.N. to instead consider renting or purchasing a hardened facility relinquished by the departing U.S.-led military coalition.

U.S. plans to withdraw from Iraq have left the U.N. scrambling to develop new security measures to protect the nearly 500 U.N. staff in Iraq. The U.N. mission — which is headquartered in the U.S.-controlled “green zone” in the center of the capital — relies heavily on U.S. forces to ensure its safety in Baghdad, as well as in three main regional headquarters: Basra, Erbil and Kirkuk.

As the U.S. continues its drawdown, the U.N. will seek to beef up its own security detail — recruiting U.N. security officers and hundreds of additional foreign security forces over the next year. The expansion is estimated to cost more than $70 million, bringing the total annual cost of the mission to about $150 million.

Iraq has been buffeted by a resurgence of political violence in recent months, as Iraqi political leaders have failed to reach a political settlement allowing for the formation of a new government. The violence has heightened anxiety among U.N. officials about their own fate, particularly at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama has announced the end of the U.S. combat phase in Iraq, a pivotal step in the withdrawal of American troops.

In principle, the U.N. would like to step up its role in providing humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of returning Iraqi refugees and supporting Iraq’s development and reconstruction efforts. But it remains unlikely that the U.N. would play a larger political role in the country, or supplant the U.S. military presence with a U.N. peacekeeping force, as U.S. Army General Raymond T. Odierno recently suggested.

“The Iraqis are getting more assertive about running their own affairs,” said one U.N. official. “They don’t want outside interference. The U.N. is not abhorred as much as some others but we’re generally in the group of outsiders.”

The U.N.’s principal security objectives will be focused on ensuring the safety of its own staff as the U.S. gradually closes down the green zone. It will also need to fend for itself in its regional headquarters in Basra and Kirkuk, where it currently relies on American firepower for its safety. The U.N. has ordered two new transport helicopters to reinforce a 28-seater plane it used to ferry U.N. officials around the country. There are plans for two additional helicopters and another fixed-wing aircraft.

Security is a highly sensitive issue for the United Nations, which lost one of its top officials, Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil, in a 2003 terrorist attack against the U.N.’s Baghdad headquarters. Twenty one other U.N. staff and associated were killed in the attack. At the time, the U.N. operated out of its own building, a former hotel outside the U.S.-controlled green zone, in order to underscore its independence from the military coalition. The U.N. withdrew most of its international staff from Iraq after subsequent attacks against the International Red Cross and other international targets.

Since then, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has gradually built the U.N. mission back up in Iraq, and the organization has played a supporting role in promoting elections and national reconciliation in Iraq. The U.N. has depended on a small contingent of more than 200 Fijian peacekeepers for protection for its staff in their Baghdad headquarters. The U.S.-led coalition, which provides them with a building in the green zone, has been responsible for the outer ring of security, and for ensuring U.N. officials can travel safely around Baghdad and the rest of the country.

Still, the perils of working in Baghdad were driven home for Ban in March 2007, when a mortar exploded near a building where the secretary-general and the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, were holding a press conference, sending the U.N. chief ducking for cover.

In anticipation of a U.S. drawdown, Ban sought to find a permanent secure home for the U.N. mission. In 2008, Ban requested $100 million from the U.N. General Assembly to fund the new building. The GA has already authorized $5 million to carry out the design stage, but a U.N. official said that it would never be ready before the U.S. completes its withdrawal by the end of 2011.

Other U.N. officials challenged that account, saying the U.N. simply saw the possibility of snapping up a formerly U.S.-occupied facility as a more cost effective way to protect staff. Both officials agreed that life would change dramatically with the American withdrawal.

“The green zone is not as green as it used to be,” said one of the officials.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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