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2003-08-20

Car Bomb Destroys UN HQ in Baghdad, 20 Die; We Talk To A Survivor

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In one of the deadliest attacks ever directed at the United Nations, a car bomb exploded outside the UN headquarters in Baghdad yesterday killing 20. We talk to Irish peace activist Michael Birmingam who was inside the complex at the time of the blast. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript

The United Nations headquarters in Baghdad has been destroyed by a truck bomb killing 20 people in one of the deadliest attacks ever directed at the United Nations.

Among the dead was Sergio Viera de Mello, the top UN official in Baghdad. Dozens were also wounded.

The explosion happened at about 4:30 in the afternoon yesterday while hundreds of UN officials, workers and journalists were inside the converted hotel. A cement truck loaded with explosives is believed to have crashed into the building.

The attack came less than two weeks after a car bomb destroyed the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad killing 17.

No group took responsibility for the attacks. Paul Bremer, who is overseeing the US. Occupation accused Syria of permitting militants into Iraq.

US and UN officials said de Mello may have been the target of the attack since the bomb struck so close to his office.

The Guardian of London reports "security at the building was about as lax as it was possible to get in postwar Baghdad." Cars were allowed to pull up next to the compound. There were no tanks or armored vehicles outside. The headquarters had no protective berms and there was no massive U.S. military presence.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the UN officials had asked the U.S.-led coalition last week to expand its security realm to include foreign embassies and offices of nongovernment agencies in Iraq. But the U.S. said no.

The Los Angeles Times reported the U.N. may have been attacked because de Mello had recently expressed support for U.S. policy and the new Iraqi Governing Council.

Viera de Mello, the 55-year-old Brazilian diplomat had served in the United Nation since 1969 in some of the world’s most sensitive areas including East Timor, Yugoslavia, Cambodia and Bangladesh.

Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, said of Mello "Sergio is dead and for us he died as an activist, not as an international bureaucrat. He was a human rights and peace activist, a just man who fought against all forms of extremism." In Brazil President Lula declared three days of national mourning in honor of de Mello.

Among the other dead was American Rick Hooper, who worked in the department of political affairs and Canadian Chris Klein-Beckman, who served as program coordinator for UNICEF.

Next door to the UN headquarters is Baghdad’s spinal cord hospital which also suffered damage from the blast. The hospital had to be evacuated after the ceiling fell in. At least eight patients, many of whom already couldn’t walk, were injured.

Today UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said the UN will stay in Iraq despite yesterday’s "senseless" attack.

  • Michael Birmingham, Irish peace activist who is in Baghdad with Voices in the Wilderness. He was inside the UN headquarters when it was bombed today.

TRANSCRIPT

MICHAEL BIRMINGHAM: Well, I was in the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad this afternoon, to do some work with some families who have been under the stress of evictions since the war and, well, I guess it was around 4:30 as people have said, I’m not exactly sure of the time. We just heard a huge explosion. I was in the front of the building on the computer and I guess everything just went dark and some of the ceiling came down and covered us in a dust. There was just confusion everywhere. Although certainly it wasn’t the part of the building that was badly damaged. When those of us in the room managed to find our way out into the corridor there was even there, kind of, more devastation just with people who were very, very badly injured, some unconscious, others who were conscious, but unable to move and in great pain and very bad injuries. And, obviously, because we couldn’t see, nobody really knew what was going on. And those of us, some of us who were able, tried to carry people out into the yard, just away from the building to safety. And, you know, we waited there then with some of those people for the helicopters and ambulances to arrive, which took awhile. And a lot of the people there were, you know, some of them were clinging to life. They had really bad injuries. So any of us with any first aid knowledge were trying to keep tourniquets on people’s arms to stop the bleeding and keep people’s airways clear of blood. It was a terrible situation, there was maybe one or two doctors there and many American soldiers, you know, who have come into the U.N. headquarters since the war, some of those people came. So, you know, it was a horrible scene. I know this from talking to the people in the hospital afterwards. The back of the U.N. building where probably Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. representative was killed and even worse, more badly damaged.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you then describe what happened, what you understood had happened.

MICHAEL BIRMINGHAM: I guess it’s probably listeners know even better than me what happened. I just heard tonight that maybe it was a truck with, you know, cement, you know, in it, I’m not very sure. What I do know there was also spinal injury hospital right next to the U.N. building, and a number of the people who were taken to the U.S. military hospital where I went were from that hospital. It’s possible that the vehicle that was involved in the bombing was somewhere in the compound, I really don’t know. But, you know, security is very tight in the U.N. since the war insofar as there is rocket launchers based outside on a permanent basis now and many soldiers and they built a wall around the U.N. compound. Whether it’s increased the military presence incredibly, it was very clear to many of us for a long time that not just in the U.N. but all over Baghdad, the security arrangements have been done with, you know, incredible incompetence. You know, basically a lot of people, you know, go into the U.N. building go in with I.D.'s, they make up themselves. The U.S. doesn't seem to have any system for preventing people. Even in the Republican Palace, it’s the same. The security is very poor, I guess. So, I don’t know what happened. But, strangely, I was talking to an Iraqi doctor I know in [Yarmut] hospital, which is one of the main, which is the largest hospital in Baghdad, just a few days ago, and he was saying he was very worried that, like the U.N. compound, that hospital has become an American base partly, and the doctors and nurses, the staff who work there were very worried that it would make them a target, it would make the hospital a target. But the U.S. Army continues to be there, I’m sure for the U.N. workers they really have been very aware that the U.S. soldiers who decided of their own volition, well, I mean it certainly was a decision of higher up in the command, to base themselves in the U.N. quite possibly made it out to be even more of a target, who knows—don’t know why it was targeted. But, yeah, that’s as much as I know of it at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: How long have you been in Iraq, Michael, this time around?

MICHAEL BIRMINGHAM: I’ve been here since the end of April. In many ways, it’s become apparent to all of us that it’s a very, very dangerous place. Dangerous for everybody who is here. You know, Iraqis don’t feel safe on the streets at all. Just everybody there with political views or whatever the background will tell that you Baghdad is not safe. And this operation for anybody who is in Baghdad knows damn well that this war is no way over and it wasn’t over at the beginning of May. I mean, it’s been very, even Iraqis I know who live in [Indura], a large part of Baghdad are afraid to travel to and from work because of the vehicles and other people are just afraid to travel obviously because of, afraid of abduction which has been going on on an incredible scale. So, this attack on U.N. workers is another layer to that. It’s terrible in its own way because these workers and the U.N. have, many of them, done incredible work here in Iraq over the years. Many of the agencies here have been a lifeline working with the Iraqi people, many Iraqi people work for the U.N. and work alongside international staff from all over the world. A lot of these workers, international and Iraqi have tried to tell a story to the world that the world was not interested in hearing, and certainly the U.S. government wasn’t interested in hearing.

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