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Iraqi Guards at U.N. Compound May Have Aided Baghdad Attack

By Dexter Filkins

The New York Times -- BAGHDAD, Iraq

U.S. investigators looking into the deadly bombing of the United Nations compound on Tuesday are focusing on the possibility that the attackers were assisted by Iraqi security guards who worked there, a senior U.S. official here said on Thursday.

The U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said all of the security guards at the compound were agents of the Iraqi secret services, to whom they regularly reported on U.N. activities before the war. The United Nations continued to employ the guards after the war was over, the official said.

The official said that when investigators began questioning the guards, two of them asserted that they were entitled to “diplomatic immunity” and refused to cooperate. Diplomats working in foreign countries are often entitled to immunity from prosecution by local authorities, but the official said the two guards could make no such claim.

The investigators are continuing to interrogate the guards, the official said.

“We believe the U.N.’s security was seriously compromised,” the official said, adding that “we have serious concerns about the placement of the vehicle” and the timing of the attack. The bomb exploded directly under the third-floor office of the U.N. coordinator for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, while he was meeting with a prominent American human rights advocate, Arthur C. Helton. Both men were killed, along with several top aides to Vieira de Mello.

In New York, a U.N. official reacted skeptically to the assertions. “All of us are trying to get to the bottom of this,” said Fred Eckhard, spokesman for the secretary-general, Kofi Annan SM ’72. “In fact, the secretary-general is sending his security coordinator to Baghdad this evening to investigate the bombing. But the task is not made easier by the conspiracy theories circulating. We’ll have to separate as best we can fact from speculation.”

No one connected to the U.N. office in Baghdad, which was demolished in the bombing, could be reached for comment. The United Nations had a large presence in Iraq before the war, running the oil-for-food program and housing teams of weapons inspectors.

The U.S. official said investigators were trying to determine which, if any, of the guards failed to report to work the day of the attack. Even before the war, the government of Saddam Hussein was widely known to assign its intelligence agents to guard and guide foreigners who were visiting or living in the country.

Suspicions have focused on the guards rather than other local U.N. personnel because their links to Saddam’s security service were close. Under the former regime, they had to report to the security service once a week on the activities of U.N. personnel, Western officials said.

Even so, U.N. administrators retained the guards after Saddam’s government was removed. U.S. officials said earlier this week that the administrators had also turned down a U.S. offer to provide greater security around the building.

Tensions have repeatedly flared between the United States and the United Nations over Iraq. The United Nations has been confined to a marginal role in Iraq since the war, and had sought to project a sympathetic and approachable image to the Iraqi people, partly by shunning the heavy protection surrounding U.S. troops and installations here.