The attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad was not only the worst in UN history, killing 17 people including chief of mission Sergio Vieira de Mello, and injuring scores of others.

Buried in the rubble of Canal Hotel, where the UN mission was headquartered, are United States hopes that the Iraqi resistance to foreign occupation is weakening—and that Iraq will not be its 21st century Vietnam.

Not incidentally was the attack also a demonstration of the failure of US occupation forces to secure the officials and staff of the one organization whose post-war involvement in Iraq could have provided the United States the fig leaf to mask its illegal invasion and occupation of what used to be a sovereign nation.

The attack also shattered the hopes of the European Union that the UN could play a more important role in Iraq than the US-mandated one of being limited to the distribution of humanitarian aid. What’s equally important is that it has also given pause to other countries poised to send troops and other personnel to Iraq.

Until the attack last August 19, hopes had been high that the UN could play a bigger role in Iraq, including its sending a peace-keeping force that would be on equal footing with US occupation forces.

The United States attacked Iraq last March without a UN mandate, in violation of international law, and for “reasons” (Iraq’s supposedly keeping “weapons of mass destruction” and its “links” with Al Qaeda) that have now turned out to be false. Basically kept out of the US decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from office last March, the UN had seemed a spent and irrelevant force in the face of aggressive US unilateralism.

As US forces swept across Iraq within weeks, rapidly took Baghdad, and appeared to have established themselves as lords and masters of Iraq and its vast oil resources including the second biggest oil reserves in the world, the United States government had made it clear last May that it neither needed nor wanted any kind of UN presence other than the most innocuously impotent.

Imperial arrogance will have its come-uppance. The state of post-war Iraq has made it necessary for the United States to seek international involvement wider than the sham Coalition of the Willing. Stretched thin over Iraq and unable to restore either law and order or basic services in most parts of the country, US occupation forces have been under increasing pressure from Iraqi resistance groups despite US raids on mosques and private homes, the killing of civilians by trigger-happy troops, and the arrest, detention and physical abuse of thousands of Iraqi suspects in a country that’s basically under martial law.

In the US homeland, the killing of US troops by Iraqi “terrorists” has caused a rapid decline in the job approval ratings of George W. Bush, who’s up for reelection in 2004, as Americans begin to fear for their loved ones in military service in Iraq (Americans can be relied upon to be indifferent to the suffering of others, but not their own).

Despite the need to augment the 140,000 US troops now in Iraq to 200,000 and more, Bush’s domestic problems, which also include a faltering economy and a record deficit, have made the mobilization of more US troops for service in Iraq problematic.

To prevent another Vietnam—in which 500,000 US troops were tied down for over a decade in a shadowy war with a resilient guerilla army that in the end cost the United States some 58,000 in casualties—the United States has to neutralize the resistance as quickly as possible, secure the entire country, and at least give the appearance of civilian Iraqi rule’s being restored.

Given the difficulty of sourcing the troops needed (estimated at 200,000 at least), the US solution would be for foreign, including UN troops, to make up the difference. Until the attack on the UN, these troops seemed forthcoming.

The Japanese government, an ardent supporter of the US war on Iraq despite its citizens’ opposition, has announced in the aftermath of the August 19 attack that it is now unlikely that its troops will be deployed in Baghdad within the year. The Japanese parliament (the Diet) had passed a law last July authorizing the sending of Japan’s Ground Self Defense Forces to provide humanitarian aid and to help reconstruct Iraqi infrastructure. Because of widespread resistance to any combat role for Japanese troops, the same law specified that GSDF troops would be deployed only in “non-combat areas.”

In itself unprecedented, the Japanese government’s decision to send troops was a triumph for US policy. But since it now seems that no part of Iraq is a “non-combat area,” it is almost certain that no GSDF troops will be embarking soon for Iraq.

On the other hand, Poland, which has been a strong supporter of the US war on Iraq, and which contributed 200 troops to the Coalition of the Willing during the March-May war, is withdrawing the bulk of its 2,000 troops from a “high risk area” in Baghdad and leaving it to US troops.

Poland has sent an additional 1,800 troops to Iraq since after the war. Some 9,000 troops from such other countries as Lithuania, Spain, and Ukraine—among other countries that constitute the “Coalition of the Willing”—are supposed to be arriving in Iraq to form the “multinational force” that would augment US troops and at the same time mask the fact that the US is the sole colonial power in that country. These countries could rethink their decision to send troops considering its possible cost in lives.

The only country clearly going the other way is the Philippines, which sent off a contingent of 15 health workers backed by 55 soldiers and 26 policemen the day after the August 19 bombing. The contingent was accompanied by the usual bellicose statements from the President of the Republic, who claimed to be demonstrating in the decision to send off the contingent that the Philippines “is not intimidated” in its “commitment to stand firm in the face of the fresh wave of terrorist attacks (in Iraq).”

Because it indiscriminately targeted civilians, a terrorist attack the August 19 bombing indeed was. But one can also assume that the UN was been targeted because it is ironically regarded by the Iraqi resistance as a US instrument not only in the present subjugation of Iraq, but also in the past ten years of UN sanctions.

Under US instigation, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq which for over a decade meant not only a stop to its further economic development, but also to a shortage of the most critical supplies for its citizens including medicine for children, of whom, according to UN relief agencies themselves, thousands died as a result.

Practically on the eve of the US attack last March, in a move widely criticized as amounting to an informal sanction for an invasion, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan withdrew UN staff from Iraq to keep them out of harm’s way once US bombardment of Baghdad began.

But an even “more specific reason” for the attack, says the British Broadcasting Company’s Paul Reynolds, could be the UN Security Council’s August 14 approval of the US sponsored Iraqi Governing Council and of the establishment of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq.

“The UN,” said Reynolds, “might therefore have been seen by the Iraqi resistance (to US occupation) as an instrument of the United States and Britain in their occupation of the country.”

By approving the Governing Council appointed by the US occupying force, the UN could thus have been seen as acting in behalf of the US as it has many times done in the past. If seen as a US instrument, the UN’s establishment of the Assistance Mission would also have been regarded as merely another means of giving the US occupation of Iraq a mantle of international approval.

An organization that through coercion, bribes and threats has either been used or ignored—and even actively undermined—by the United States depending upon its interests of the moment, the United Nations has thus ended up in the gun sights of the resistance to the war and occupation that early this year at least it never sanctioned.

For this the blame is at the door of the sole superpower that has turned Iraq into one of the bloodiest battlefields on earth—and whose actions in Iraq since March have created the ultimate irony for the UN so far since its founding. But of greater importance is the possibility for a diminishing rather than growing UN role in Iraq—which would mean, for the United States, a prolonged and perilous occupation of that country that could rival its presence in Vietnam from 1964 to 1975. Iraq could indeed be, for the US, Vietnam reprised.

(Today/, August 23, 2003)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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