U.N. body to send its first Iraq envoy since 2003

Iraqi armoured vehicles patrol a road in Baghdad February 17, 2008. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen

AMMAN (Reuters) - The U.N. refugee agency said on Monday it would send its first representative to Baghdad since 2003, when 22 people including U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello died in a bomb attack on its office in the Iraqi capital.

Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the move was part of a “stepped up mobilization of efforts” to allow the U.N. aid agency to better help Iraqis, either displaced or fleeing the country.

“Our representative now sits in Amman and I have decided to move this post immediately into Baghdad. I will be presenting in the next two weeks a new name to the Iraqi authorities (for their agreement),” Guterres said.

The 2003 bombing prompted the United Nations to pull out its international staff from Iraq, leaving only local staffers to conduct minimal activities.

In recent months more U.N. expatriate staff have returned although most are still operating from Amman, Jordan.

The UNHCR’s international staff in Baghdad, in agreement with the U.N. mission, will be increased to five people from two, although most of the support teams will remain in Amman because of continued security concerns, he added.

Some 2.2 million Iraqis have fled sectarian fighting which killed tens of thousands after the bombing of a revered Shi’ite shrine in February 2006 and pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.

The Iraqi Red Crescent estimates that between 1.5 million and 2 million Iraqis have fled to Syria, most of the others going to Jordan. Roughly the same number are displaced within Iraq.

Writing by Suleiman al-Khalidi; editing by Richard Williams