Ex Top UN Official in Iraq Hans Von Sponeck: The Attack Should Come As No Surprise

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Shortly after the attack, we talked with Hans Von Sponeck, former assistant secretary general of the United Nations in Iraq. He said the attack came as little surprise. He also reveals that former UN chief weapons inspector Richard Butler kept chemical weapons on the UN compound in Baghdad. [Includes transcript]


HANS VON SPONECK: Well, what I must say first, is, it’s a great tragedy when one loses colleagues that one has known very well. Mr. de Mello was not only a colleague but had become a friend particularly in the context of the Iraq discussion. When I served in Baghdad, he was the under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs in New York and we’ve frequently consulted. It’s a great loss. The United Nations will have great difficulty to replace this eminent civil servant and it will set back the role that the United Nations can play to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people in this post war period. On the other hand, I would say, anyone who is taken by surprise either doesn’t know the Iraq situation or is simply willing to ignore the signs that are all pervasive, that there is a shift from targeting the US military, to a lesser extent the British military because they are increasingly protecting themselves against attacks. And the choice of those who are on the extreme end of dissatisfaction in Iraq are softer targets. We have seen oil installations being attacked, water facilities blown up, electricity facilities disabled and we’ve had this terrifying blast at the Jordanian embassy just over a week ago, and now the United Nations, it isn’t a surprise. The Iraqi people are angry, and the range of anger goes from simple dissatisfaction with the lack of progress in restoring normalcy, to these extreme forms of hostility towards those who have— President Bush only today after this blast again repeated allegedly brought freedom to Iraq. This is not freedom. An imposed, externally imposed freedom, rather than an Iraqi-made freedom, is no real freedom, and we will see more of what has happened today as we go along unless the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American and British victors, are changing their approach.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Hans Von Sponeck, who is the former U.N. coordinator for the Oil For Food Program in Iraq, Do you know this office well, this office in particular. Was it yours?

HANS VON SPONECK: I was 17 months in that office. It is on the, as you enter the building, on the left side of that building, second floor. This is where, I think, the major impact of this blast occurred. It is a former hotel, cheaply built. A little bit amazing that an incoming army was not able to move in heavy earth moving or other heavy equipment that could remove some of the collapsed walls. But that’s how it is, and we, of course, don’t know yet the extent of casualties, but, though, the suicide bombers, and I presume they were, hit the most vulnerable corner of this building.

AMY GOODMAN:I had a question about what was on the grounds. Were there any chemicals, perhaps biological or chemical weapons that the U.N. had gathered there?

HANS VON SPONECK: No, because they had been dismantled. In 1999. July when the office of Chemical Weapon Prohibition in the Hague at, really, my request, because month after month, I’d asked the United Nations to send a team to open the laboratories that Richard Butler, the chief of the disarmament group of the United Nations had left behind, irresponsibly left behind. And so they came with a team headed by a South African expert of chemical weapons to come to Baghdad to neutralize the substances . They found at the time a kilogram of mustard gas, anthrax, VX, [taboun], sarin, samples that were used for calibration. They were not a problem, but the mustard gas certainly was, had it come into contact with fire, water or other external influences, but that’s all gone. So, there was today, there was no laboratory that could have posed a threat in addition to the external threat through the bombs.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean that Richard Butler had irresponsibly left there?

HANS VON SPONECK: Well, Mr. Butler, first of all, knew what he had left behind. When, on the 16th of December, 1998, when Operation Desert Fox began, when he withdrew his team while the secretary general left us, and that was a good decision, the humanitarian workers in Baghdad, and the records can give evidence to the fact that on the same day I began to write to the U.N. to ask that the laboratories be looked at. And it took many months. In fact, it took six months, over six months, before finally a team came to open these laboratories and dismantle what there was. And Mr. Butler knew this. Mr. Butler who has played such an enormously dishonorable role in this whole affair, pretended that he had the security in mind, but did little to actually accelerate the opening of these facilities and the disabling. He knew what was there and therefore he also knew the potential threat that existed for the safety, not only of the UN staff, but also of the people that lived in the vicinity of the UN building that today was the subject of the bombing.

AMY GOODMAN: And where did these chemicals come from?

HANS VON SPONECK: Well, Some of them as we now know were brought in legitimately as substances that were needed for calibration purposes. These were controlled substances that was all in order, there was nothing wrong in bringing these in. And they were also, as we were told, not dangerous in case there had been an aerial attack as there was in December, 1998, or an earthquake or whatever. But, in addition, there were substances that the UNSCOM, the disarmament group, had taken from the Iraqis, and stored in that laboratory, including this 1 kilogram of mustard gas. And that was the problem. And that is where one can make an accusation to Mr. Butler who never was an international civil servant. He never felt like an international civil servant. He was a king in his field he thought, and I am very accusatory here but I think with justification, because he did not do what a responsible international civil servant would have done, and that is to make sure that these laboratory facilities would have been very quickly neutralized with the urgency that the issue deserved.

AMY GOODMAN: Hans Von Sponeck, we are now hearing that at least 17 people are dead, over a hundred are wounded, did you know any of the other people who are still at the United Nations compound in Iraq, and can you describe that area that you worked in for so many months?

HANS VON SPONECK: Well, you know, I don’t know yet. I have not seen apart from my colleague Mr. de Mello. I don’t know who else may be among the casualties. There are certainly many international and national staff who work there today who were in that building when I was there. So, I have to see. I pray that some of those with whom I worked are not among the casualties, but I feel sorry for any of my colleagues who have become victimized by this brutal, but not surprising, attack. The building itself, is, on three sides, there are no other buildings. On the fourth side, and that’s the side that was particularly affected by this blast, there is a military psychiatric treatment facility. Or it was at least in my days. That’s the only other building that is immediately adjacent to the Canal Hotel, apart from some service buildings, like an auto repair workshop that’s on the compound, but that’s of no consequence. That’s a light building, not a big problem. But behind the back of the building opens into an area that used to be an airfield of the Iraqi Air Force that was abandoned even before this war. In the distance, about 800 meter air distance, is a building that played a prominent role in the Operation Desert Fox, the American British air offensive of December 1998. It’s the building where the [Amilam], the general security building of the Iraqi secret service, was situated. That was damaged then. But that’s quite a distance away, as I say, it’s about, let’s say, 8-900 yards away. The building, unlike the reports that I heard this afternoon, is quite far away from the center of Baghdad, in fact, its on the outskirts of Baghdad. There are several highways that are passing by in the vicinity and it is therefore not in an area that is highly populated.

AMY GOODMAN: We are speaking with Hans Von Sponeck. He is the former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. He was the head of the UN Oil For Food program in Iraq until February 2000, when he resigned in protest over the continued sanctions against the people of Iraq. We’ll return with him in a moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Here on Democracy Now, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As we continue with our conversation with Hans Von Sponeck, who occupied the office that de Mello was killed in yesterday. Sergio de Mello, the chief of the UN mission in Iraq. Again, Hans Von Sponeck, the former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations until February 2000, when he resigned in protest of the sanctions imposed against Iraq. We are talking to Hans Von Sponeck, formerly head of UN operations in Iraq, now remembering his colleague, only at this point the one that he knows who has died. That’s Sergio de Mello. Many other people have died, news not yet out of their names. You were there during the bombing of Iraq in 1998, when Clinton was the president of the United States. We are seeing these horrific pictures, the actual pictures someone had, NHK Japanese television, in the midst of a press conference, when the bomb went off, glass shattered, and then you see people who are wounded. We don’t usually get images like this when Iraqi civilians are attacked, because the cameras are not usually in their homes. People are embedded in the military or they are here at this press conference. But you were there during that that time. What was it like? Is it bringing back memories?

HANS VON SPONECK: Well, I would say, if I had to choose between what’s happening in Iraq now and what happened in the building that was my office for these 17 months today and what happened in December of '98 during Operation Desert Fox during those four days of bombing. If I had to make a choice, I would prefer to revisit what happened in 1998. That was a much more focused, almost predictable attack on buildings that the US intelligence, the British intelligence had carved out, had marked. Today, this was totally unexpected. It was a target that no one had in mind. The United Nations, an unarmed organization, that is meant to promote peace. No one thought that the swaying toward soft targets would go that way to have such a soft target as the United Nations in Baghdad involved. So I would say ’98 was harmless compared to what happened today, not only because of the casualties, but also because of the trauma that is deepening now for, not only the international staff living in Iraq, but also for the people of Iraq, who have gone through so much, and who are happy to see a dictator having gone, but what they have right now is, in terms of day to day living, worse than what they had before the dictator was gone. So it is to me, as a person who has lived there, who appreciates the Iraqis and their pride and their willingness to survive, it's a bitter cynicism when I hear the president of the United States talking about freedom for Iraqis, having brought the freedom. There is no such thing as this. There is an American freedom that an ill-directed U.S. administration has tried to bring down by parachute. But it’s not an Iraqi freedom. And no calm, no tranquility, no normalcy will return to that country until the American administration understands that only an Iraqi-made freedom will bring that peace that they are talking about so much in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Hans Von Sponeck, Salim Lome, spokesperson for the United Nations in Iraq, came out of the rubble and was interviewed and said the mission of the United Nations is to end the occupation. He was extremely upset and angry. Do you see that that is the mission. I mean, earlier the documents that came out showing the UN recognized, said that they would be playing a subservient role to the occupying powers, this, those documents released from the Executive Committee on Peace and Security.

HANS VON SPONECK: What comes to my mind when I hear you, Amy, is what was, indeed, the last meeting that my colleague Mr. de Mello, under Secretary General and in charge of the Iraq programs now, had to say on the 17th of July, in the Security Council. Repeatedly, he reminded, and the Secretary General’s report reflects this, the Security Council that what happens in Iraq must be Iraq-made. It mustn’t be an externally imposed development. He cautioned the Security Council obviously directing his caution primarily to the occupying powers, the US and Britain, to believing that there can be an indefinite period of their presence and involvement, that the first fiddle in the reconstruction period must be played, he kept saying, by the Iraqis themselves. I think this, what now is maybe is the final speech of Mr. de Mello to the Security Council, I hope that everyone, from the Secretary General, to Colin Powell, to President Bush, to Prime Minister Blair, I hope they all will remember that and do what needs to be done now. First of all, to give greater leeway to local leadership. Secondly, to try and internationalize the Iraq reconstruction effort, and by that I do not mean that the international community now should pick up the cost of damages that were created by two ill-directed governments that decided to go to war against Iraq, but to help in the reconstruction efforts, rehabilitating the infrastructure, trying to rebuild the education system, the water system and so on—all that that has nothing to do with the war damages. The war damages, I’m sorry, must be the responsibility of those who fought this illegal war. But the other many challenging aspects of reconstructing Iraq, the international community must help. The Americans, as the leading occupying power, headed by Mr. Bremer, must become much more sensitive towards giving the United Nations and others a role, really, a role of equals. Not the role of a sub-agency of the Defense Department of the United States or of the State Department. In internationalizing the reconstruction effort—in fact, I would hope that the Security Council can really become the lead agent in the reconstruction effort—that’s where that effort belongs, not to a bilateral capital. And then I think we have learned a little bit out of very tragic circumstances that culminated today in the attack on the UN building.

AMY GOODMAN: The reports were that there were some U.S. soldiers standing guard, but only a few guards in one area outside the United Nations compound. It sounds like it was isolated. Do you know how this compares to the number of soldiers who stand guard at the oil ministry, or at the oil fields?

HANS VON SPONECK: No I don’t. But I do know that the United Nations, for good reasons, always was reluctant to be guarded. Even during my days, we had the Iraqi army surrounding the Canal Hotel compound. We accepted that, but we were not comfortable with that. And, I take it that the same applies to the current situation. The United Nations being heavily guarded by troops of a country that fought a war that many Iraqis didn’t want wasn’t seen as very wise. So the UN was one of the softer targets in Baghdad and on top of it ,and I think that is a security lesson for the United Nations and maybe for the CPA, for the provisional authority, is that one shouldn’t just guard the entrance to that United Nations compound. The back was relatively unprotected, so were the sides. So one had a very close security look at the main entrance to the UN compound, and I think those who planned the attack today, of course, exploited that and avoided placing the truck near the better-guarded part of that Canal Hotel compound.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that if Saddam Hussein were captured that this would still go on?

HANS VON SPONECK: Again, I would really say the sooner we accept the fact that dissatisfaction extends, in Iraq, extends beyond remnants of the Baath party or loyalists that can’t understand that to be without the dictatorship is a blessing for Iraq, the sooner we understand that the dissatisfaction of Iraq goes way beyond those groups— or worse, James Rubin, the former spokesman during the days of Madeline Albright in the State Department, today in an interview with CNN, kept talking about thousands of Saudi Arabian irregulars and terrorists entering and he said, I don’t, but he said, entering Iraq from Northern Iraq. In other words, not even from the Saudi boarder area, I think there is a group of leaders, of political leaders that are fooling themselves in Washington or they want to believe that they can fool others, including us here in Europe. I’m sorry, it’s quite different. The dissatisfaction, as I said before, goes way beyond these clusters of dissatisfaction and maybe a few misdirected people who would like to go into Iraq to assist those elements of extremists. If one believes that, one doesn’t really understand the reality of today’s Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Hans Von Sponeck, the former UN Assistant Secretary General. His office was de Mello’s, Sergio de Mello’s. Sergio de Mello, the chief of the UN compound in Iraq, was killed yesterday, along with at least nineteen others, when a car bomb struck the UN compound in Baghdad. Hans Von Sponeck was speaking to us from Germany.

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