The Iraqi People Hate the United Nations

U.N. cars destroyed in the Aug. 19 attack against U.N. headquarters in Baghdad
Cars destroyed by the Aug. 19 explosion at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad litter a field next to the building (Photo: Robert Sullivan/AFP-Getty Images).

When Folha de São Paulo reporters returned to Baghdad on April 10, two days after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, they could not help but notice the number of cars set on fire by Iraqi rebels and looters. Among the vehicles destroyed, many were brand-new blue-and-white United Nations vans.

Until then, these vehicles had been waiting in the so-called No Man’s Land, the strip of land on the border between Iraq and Jordan. They had been moved there after George W. Bush issued his ultimatum and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered all U.N. personnel out of Iraq. The U.N. staff would wait there until the fall of the dictatorship, when they believed they could safely re-enter the country and help rebuild it.

That is what they did right away on April 9 to find—instead of flowers and welcoming arms—a population in revolt. Well-intentioned U.N. officials had to run from their cars, which were then looted and set ablaze. This episode perfectly illustrates the organization’s principal error in Iraq: Its bureaucrats have not yet noticed that average Iraqis hate the U.N. with the same intensity that they hate the U.S. invaders.

After all, their country suffered 13 years of economic embargo approved and put in place by that entity, a decision that pauperized Iraq and affected the population in matters ranging from infrastructure (there was a dearth of sewage pipes, for instance) to the everyday (children would go without writing paper in school, having to use wrapping paper, old newspapers, etc.). Besides, this was the same U.N. that in the months leading up to the war had sponsored the disarmament of a country that would be invaded anyway.

It does not matter to the people that the one who brought about the embargo was Saddam Hussein himself, upon invading Kuwait in 1990. Under severe censorship, Iraqis have spent the past 10 years being “informed” by the government and believing that the entity headquartered in New York was another arm of Yankee imperialism.

The U.N.’s ignorance with regard to this Iraqi sentiment is revealed in the carelessness with which it had been looking after its security in Baghdad. The place it chose for its headquarters, the Canal Hotel, is an example of this. The Canal is in the middle of a poor neighborhood, on the “wrong” side of the Tigris, far from the so-called New City and therefore removed from the security of the U.S. Military Command.

The guerrillas who are taking over the country today have their origin in the wholesale looting that erupted throughout Iraq after the invasion—when the pressure cooker in which the Iraqis had lived during the past three decades finally burst.

The recent attacks follow a perverse logic. Right after Saddam Hussein’s fall, the first targets were buildings and persons linked to the former regime, but then they evolved into attacks on the invaders who persisted in not leaving the country. During the 43 official days of the war, fewer than 50 U.S. soldiers died; this number has doubled in the postwar period. Now, the guerrillas appear to be settling scores with people who have collaborated with the invading forces. First it was the Jordanian Embassy, Jordan being accused of closing its eyes to the U.S. military presence during the war. Next it was the U.N.’s turn.

What motivates them is the paradox that defines the current situation in Iraq: Its people hated Saddam’s bloody dictatorship. And they are grateful to the Anglo-American coalition for toppling it. But they want the invaders to leave the country, the sooner the better—yesterday, preferably. Since the United States shows no signs of letting go of the bone anytime soon, the war is only just beginning.