On 19 August 2003, the United Nations were attacked. Terrorists from the Al-Qaida network killed 22 UN staff members by detonating a car bomb in front of the UN Headquarter in Baghdad. The UN had never before been targeted like this.
“Normally I would have been working at my desk this morning, like every day since I came to Baghdad” said Mr. Hamid Abdeljaber at the beginning of his briefing for the group of students from Germany and Japan about the situation in Iraq. The conference room fell silent when Mr. Abdeljaber started to talk. “I worked for six years in Iraq. I worked for the Oil for Food Program before the last war and I came back after the end to help the Iraqi people. But I had left back to New York on the evening before the attack because it was time for me to go back to Headquarters. If I would have decided to leave one day later, I would not be alive anymore.”
Reham Al-Farra was at her desk at that morning. The young Jordan journalist had joined the United Nations Department of Public Information only recently and had gone to Baghdad after a short time in New York. She took over the office of Mr. Abdeljaber who had worked there. When the car bomb exploded in front of the Baghdad Headquarter, Reham Al-Farra died. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Iraq died as well – Sergio Vieira de Mello had worked for the UN for more than 30 years in places like Cambodia, Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia. He was one of the most respected persons within the UN system. Mr. Abdeljaber put emphasis on the fact that a lot of UN employees risk, and sometimes lose, their lives for their ideals and the vision of a better world.
In the following 90 minutes, he described the UN’s policy concerning Iraq with so much passion that none of the students were mentally absent. The great culture of the country served him as a perfect example to explain to the students how much potential this country has, not only in the past, but as well in present and in future. For a long time, Babylon, called the “cradle of civilization”, had been the centre not only of Mesopotamia, but of the entire world. The first written law texts, the hanging gardens of Semiramis, the impressive buildings, the salience in painting and arts and last but not least the strategic location between the two streams of Euphrates and Tigris, made Babylon and Iraq a target for powerful rulers. For the same reasons, occupation and violence are continuous parts of Iraqi history. The region was conquered, invaded and occupied more than 100 times - as often as no other region in the world. But the desire for independence of the many different ethnic and religious groups, some of them unique in the world, could never be calmed for a long time and never be controlled by foreigners. And that was what Mr. Abdeljaber further stressed: one must be aware of the fact that Iraqi history is one of blood and war. To change this history and to bring Iraq back to the path of peace and security was the idea of the UN’s Iraq policy for more than a decade.
Hamid Abdeljaber’s second part of his presentation covered the last 16 years of Iraq’s history. After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Security Council Resolution 687 (1991) combined three ideas: the legitimacy of a coalition to free Kuwait, the disarmament of Iraq with regard to biological and chemical weapons and the most comprehensive sanctions regime ever to weaken the Iraqi government. Especially the latter point failed. Due to the sanctions, half a million children died but the regime grew even stronger. Therefore Resolution 986 (1995) created the Oil for Food Program that allowed Iraq to sell certain amounts of oil on the world market in exchange of food, medicine and other humanitarian goods for the suffering Iraqi civilian population. One way or the other, the country was close to collapse. The Hussein regime was not cooperative at all and violated international law. As a consequence, American airstrikes hit the country for four days in December 1998. On this day, the United Nations withdrew their staff from Iraq. Therefore, the international community did not have any information about what was going on within the country.
The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 changed the situation. The Bush administration suspected Iraq of possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction. Though the UN weapons inspector Hans Blix asked the members of the Security Council for more time to pursue accurate examinations, the US led another coalition into Iraq. After six weeks, President Bush proclaimed the end of principal military action. The international community returned to Baghdad and to the Iraqi people in order to coordinate humanitarian aid and influence the developing political processes. At this point, Mr. Abdeljaber stressed how strongly the Iraqi people had welcomed the removal of Saddam Hussein and the help from the United Nations. Still, according to his view, the people had the impression of being under American occupation since 2003.
These days, the situation in Iraq is close to a civil war. Mr. Abdeljaber did not lose his optimism after all the disappointing years: he was convinced that all ethnic groups would eventually recognize that their struggle for power could not be won; they would all lose if the violence continued. Therefore Mr. Abdeljaber argued for a stronger role of the UN in Iraq to build trust with the Iraqi people. He hopes and works for a stronger involvement of the UN concerning the country’s future, in a role that ensures more influence, and finally a role with more responsibility. He would like to see the UN in Iraq in a similar position as in Afghanistan or Kosovo, where stability and progress constantly grow.
Jan Ingo Knuth