By DAVID USBORNE in New York
The United Nations decided yesterday to withdraw almost all of its remaining international personnel from Iraq within 48 hours because of fears for their safety, undercutting claims by the United States that coalition forces are making headway towards curbing the violence in the country.
Kofi Annan the UN Secretary General had been agonising over the safety of his staff in Iraq after the explosion at the UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August which killed 22 people, including his own personal envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
A second car bomb exploded near the compound on Monday killing a security guard.
"This is not an evacuation, it's just a further downsizing," insisted Fred Eckhard, a spokesman for Mr Annan.
He made it clear, however, that only a symbolic handful of the UN's core staff would remain in Iraq. All the others will be transferred to Amman in Jordan.
The move came on the same day that Vladimir Putin, the Russian Federation President, declared in his address to the General Assembly that the UN should be granted "direct participation" in the rebuilding of Iraq. Several world leaders have made the same appeal in New York this week.
The numbers of UN staff in Iraq had already fallen sharply over recent days. From a peak in August of 650 personnel, there were only 86 remaining yesterday.
Mr Annan's decision means that almost all of those people will now also leave. However, about 4,000 locally hired Iraqis will remain engaged to assist in humanitarian programmes, including the distribution of food.
Mr Eckhard said that most of the UN personnel leaving the country would take residence in Amman with a view to returning to Iraq whenever the security situation there improves. He did not know when that would be.
"We are reducing the numbers and keep the matter under continual review," he said.
The redeployment leaves a vacuum in Iraq at precisely the time that nations on the Security Council are wrangling over a US-sponsored resolution to give an expanded role to the UN in the reconstruction effort in addition to mandating a multinational force in the country.
One senior envoy to the UN conceded yesterday that the absence of all but a handful of UN staff in the country was "serious".
Commenting shortly before the partial withdrawal was announced, he added, "How serious would depend on how long it lasted."
Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, meanwhile made an impassioned defence before the General Assembly of the coalition's invasion of Iraq, launched without Security Council approval.
"I acknowledge the controversy over the military action we took and the heavy responsibilities we bear," he said.
But he insisted that the alternative of doing nothing would have produced a worse outcome.
"Saddam Hussein would have been emboldened by our failure to act, every dictator would have been encouraged to follow his example, and the authority of the United Nations would have been gravely weakened."
In a jab at France, which is asking for a quick return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people, Mr Straw said any timetable, "should be driven by the needs of the Iraqi people and their capacity progressively to assume democratic control, rather than by fixing arbitrary deadlines".
In his speech, Mr Putin avoided the debate over timetables, choosing instead to emphasise his appeal for a greater role for the UN.
"Only direct participation by the United Nations in the rebuilding of Iraq will enable its people themselves to decide on their future," he said.
"And only with the active - and I want to stress this - practical assistance by the United Nations in its economic and civil transformation, only thus will Iraq assume a new worthy place in the world community."