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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 06:56 GMT 07:56 UK
UN leaves skeleton staff in Iraq
The shell of the UN HQ in Baghdad after a bomb attack in August
The UN Baghdad office was devastated by a car bomb attack
The United Nations has again cut the number of its international staff in Iraq due to security concerns, leaving fewer than 50 foreign employees in the country.

More than 30 UN international staff pulled out of Iraq over the weekend, but UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said other staff were still entering Iraq.

Before the 19 August car bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people, the UN had more than 600 staff in Iraq.

The head of the UN's oil-for-food programme in Iraq, Benon Sevan, says preparations to hand over its work and assets to Iraq's coalition provisional authority have been hampered by continuing insecurity and staff cuts.

But Mr Sevan said the UN would stick to its aim of closing down the programme by 21 November.

We're still here today, we're still working
Kevin Kennedy, UN mission head in Baghdad
The programme involves $65 billion of oil exports and $47 billion of humanitarian supplies

In another development, Arab countries at the UN General Assembly expressed grave concern over Iraq's instability and called on the US-led coalition for a speedy handover of power to Iraqis as the only solution.

Scaling down

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan ordered additional staff cutbacks after a second bomb attack on the UN headquarters last week, which killed an Iraqi security guard.

Finding the way out of this predicament... lies in an international commitment... to setting a clear timetable for the withdrawal of the occupying forces
Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara
On Monday, Mr Eckhard said the UN humanitarian work in the county would be able to continue as more than 4,000 Iraqi staff were still working on various UN projects.

In Baghdad, the head of the UN mission, Kevin Kennedy said he had enough people to continue despite the latest cutbacks.

"We're still here today, we're still working," Mr Kennedy said.

However, Mr Annan earlier indicated that if security was not improved he might not be able to allow the return of the UN's international staff needed to oversee its projects.

Experts say that continuing instability in Iraq also puts question marks over a larger UN role in Iraq - possibly in helping with a new constitution and overseeing elections.

Arab pleas

Speaking at the start of the second week of the UN General Assembly in New York, a number of Arab countries urged a quick restoration of sovereignty in Iraq and a bigger role for the UN.

Arab speakers also said the US-led occupation forces must commit themselves to a clear withdrawal timetable to end the continuing violence and unrest.

"Finding the way out of this predicament does not lie in focussing on addressing the lack of security, therefore increasing the number of troops," Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara said in a speech.

"The way out lies in an international commitment to the unity and sovereignty of the territories of Iraq, to setting a clear timetable for the withdrawal of the occupying forces from Iraq as soon as possible."

The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Maher, said the UN should play a central role in helping the Iraqis to realise their aspirations. He called for the "earliest possible withdrawal of the occupying forces".

Last week, Washington said it would send thousands more troops to Iraq to quell the attacks by Iraqi insurgents.

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