At the time, the Americans had little contact with Iraq’s religious leaders. Vieira de Mello believed that the U.N. could make a contribution if it could enlist the support of powerful clerics. On June 28th, he travelled south to Najaf, to meet Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the prominent Shiite cleric, who had refused to meet with the occupiers. In a whispery voice, Sistani complained about the Coalition’s rush to privatize state-owned enterprises, as well as its use of excessive force. He also said that he was planning to issue a fatwa declaring that only Iraqis could write the Iraqi constitution.
“Samahat al-Sayyid,” Vieira de Mello began, using the Arabic expression for “your eminence,” which he had rehearsed along the road from Baghdad. “I understand you want the constitution written by Iraqis—”
“I didn’t say the constitution should be written by Iraqis,” Sistani said sharply. “I said it should be written by elected Iraqis.”
Vieira de Mello nodded. “I learned the same lesson in East Timor,” he said. With these words, Vieira de Mello, perhaps unintentionally, set himself up in direct opposition to the Coalition, which still planned to appoint a committee to select drafters for a constitution. Bremer was insensitive to the importance of introducing a constitution that was not tainted by its association with the occupiers. But Vieira de Mello, by failing to tell Sistani that fair elections would take at least a year to prepare, had raised expectations that could not be met.
After the meeting, Vieira de Mello was driven to the sacred shrine where Imam Ali, a cousin of Muhammad, was buried. “I want to go into the mausoleum,” he whispered to Salamé, who shook his head, saying that a bloody confrontation had occurred there a few weeks before. “No, Ghassan, we must,” Vieira de Mello said. “I may not get back here again.”
A large group of Iraqis had gathered around them, some murmuring, “What are the foreigners doing here?”
“Out now, Sergio,” Salamé said, firmly.
“Why?” he asked.
“Out now,” Salamé said. Vieira de Mello reluctantly left the shrine. A U.N. official who was present recalls, “Sergio was discovering the world of Iraq. From an intellectual point of view, he wanted to see everything, and sometimes he was oblivious to the political sensitivities.”
On the drive back to Baghdad, Salamé congratulated Vieira de Mello. “You know you made a big statement there,” he said, referring to his endorsement of Sistani’s electoral ground rules, which Bremer opposed. Vieira de Mello punched Salamé playfully and resorted to what was becoming his favorite quip: “Ghassan, I don’t want to become a Bremello!”
Two days after the meeting, Sistani issued the fatwa saying that he would not recognize the legitimacy of a constitution that was not written by an elected Iraqi assembly. He also said that the U.N. agreed with him. Bremer asked Vieira de Mello to refute the cleric’s claim as a misrepresentation of the U.N. position, but Vieira de Mello refused. Bremer was incensed. “It took us months to undo the damage that Sergio did in that one meeting,” Bremer told me.
Though Vieira de Mello was horrified by the Coalition’s blunders, he felt that they created an opening for the U.N. In a note to a colleague, he was upbeat: “I feel confident that the U.N. will truly, as opposed to rhetorically, be able to play its ‘vital role’ in Iraq.” His team was eager to offer assistance on developing a power-sharing plan for Iraq’s many factions. “Iraqis need to know that they will get tangible, executive authority,” Vieira de Mello told Bremer.
The U.N. had considerable experience with constitutions and elections. Vieira de Mello had dealt with such issues in Cambodia, Kosovo, and East Timor. Some of Bremer’s plans reminded him of his own past mistakes; in East Timor, he had been roundly criticized for initially failing to offer a clear timetable for a transition to full sovereignty. The U.N. had kept the Timorese in the dark in much the same way that the Americans were failing to enlighten Iraqis. Vieira de Mello urged Bremer to begin to develop and publicize a plan for elections.
At one meeting, Bremer said that he was going to appoint a “consultative committee” of Iraqi leaders. Vieira de Mello suggested that he rename the group the Iraqi “provisional government.” Bremer refused, but came around to Vieira de Mello’s idea that “council” carried a more authoritative air than “committee.” But that was not enough. “We need to signal executive powers,” Vieira de Mello said. Salamé, who attended the meeting, said, “We should put hukm in the name.” In Arabic hukuuma means “government.” Bremer agreed, and the matter was settled: the new body would be called majlis al-hukm—the Governing Council.
The functions of the Governing Council remained undefined. Vieira de Mello urged Bremer to give it the power to manage foreign affairs, finance, security, and constitutional process. And he pushed for allowing the Iraqis on the council to designate ministers and be given the power to approve the national budget. Bremer, for his part, had to decide who belonged on the twenty-five-member council. Vieira de Mello, who had spent the previous six weeks meeting Iraqi leaders, volunteered names. He persuaded Bremer to include the Secretary-General of the Communist Party, Hamid Majeed Mousa. And Aqila al-Hashimi, an experienced Shiite diplomat who had helped to arrange Vieira de Mello’s meetings in Najaf, became one of just three women on the council.
Vieira de Mello was proud of his contributions to the Governing Council. In a cable to U.N. headquarters in early July, he wrote that “Bremer was at pains to state that our thinking had been influential.” He noted that the C.P.A. demonstrated a “growing understanding” that the “aspirations and frustrations of Iraqis need to be dealt with by greater empathy and accommodation and that the U.N. has a useful role to play in this regard.” Vieira de Mello’s pride was perhaps excessive. He saw it as a victory that only nine of the twenty-five Iraqi members of the body were exiles. Yet, as many Iraqis noted, six of the thirteen Shiite representatives and three of the five Sunnis were exiles. Vieira de Mello hailed the Governing Council’s power to propose policies and appoint interim diplomats and ministers. But Bremer could veto any of these decisions.
The council was inaugurated on July 13, 2003, and Vieira de Mello was the only non-Iraqi who spoke at the ceremony. He wore a light-blue tie, in honor of the U.N. “We are here, in whatever form you wish, for as long as you want us,” he told the Iraqis who had just been sworn in as council members. Back at the Canal Hotel, the U.N. staff was again divided. Marwan Ali, a political aide, warned him, “Sergio, don’t you see, you’re not changing the Americans. You are helping the Americans.” Vieira de Mello argued that the Governing Council was the “only game in town.” At last, the U.N. would be able to negotiate with Iraqi leaders rather than with the occupiers. “This is only a start,” he told Prentice. “But it is a necessary start.”
Vieira de Mello and Bremer were establishing a fragile rapport. Although Bremer had close ties to some of the neoconservatives in Washington, who viewed the U.N. with contempt, Vieira de Mello believed that Bremer was more cosmopolitan, because he spoke French, Dutch, and Norwegian. “I’ve been giving advice to Bremer on how to manage the Iraqis’ hurt pride,” he told Jonathan Steele, a reporter for the Guardian. “There’s been a gradual change in him. Everything I’m telling you, he buys.” While having a beer with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, of the Washington Post, Vieira de Mello told him, “Bremer will succeed if he makes himself Iraq’s man in Washington rather than Washington’s man in Iraq.” Vieira de Mello relished being involved in such a high-profile challenge. In an e-mail to Peter Galbraith, the former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, who intended to visit Iraq, he wrote, “Why only one day in Baghdad? Here’s where things are happening . . . good and bad.”
Vieira de Mello took pride in what the U.N. had achieved. “Can you believe we stretched our marginal mandate as far as we did?” he asked Salamé in late July. He believed that the U.N. would help organize landmark elections in 2004. “Iraq is a test for both the United States and for the U.N.” he told the French newspaper La Croix. “The world has become too complex for only one country, whatever its might, to determine the future or the destiny of humanity. The United States will realize that it is in its interest to exert its power through this multilateral filter that gives it credibility, acceptability, and legitimacy. The era of empire is finished.”
After helping Bremer to form the Governing Council, Vieira de Mello found his influence abruptly diminished. The Iraqis who had previously used Vieira de Mello to convey their views to Bremer could now negotiate directly with the Americans. Vieira de Mello had inadvertently made himself dispensable. Kieran Prendergast, the U.N.’s Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, says, “He was like a Victorian parlormaid—seduced and discarded.”
The Governing Council ended up spending more time squabbling than exercising its limited authority. Vieira de Mello suggested that the council would gain credibility if it were funded by the U.N. and if it received counsel from U.N. advisers. But Iraqi council members were not interested. He wrote to U.N. headquarters that their behavior did “not indicate a particular willingness for compromise.” The council members seemed out of touch with ordinary Iraqis, he said, and were operating “in a kind of cocoon.”
Nevertheless, if the choice was between absolute U.S. rule and flawed Iraqi rule, Vieira de Mello preferred the Governing Council. In July, he toured the Middle East to persuade Iraq’s neighbors to give the council “the benefit of the doubt.” He visited Crown Prince Abdullah, in Saudi Arabia. He flew to Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad and to Tehran to meet with President Mohammad Khatami—representatives of regimes that the Bush Administration had labelled as state sponsors of terrorism. He also met with the foreign minister of Egypt and with Amr Moussa, the Secretary-General of the Arab League. He responded to criticisms of the Iraq occupation by reminding these leaders that their own regimes were far from democratic. Several Arab governments said that they were prepared to support the council if the Coalition really let it govern.
Numerous Arab journalists suggested that Vieira de Mello was being used. When he was asked, on August 9th, if the U.N. was there as “just a cover for the American invasion,” his temper flared: “Kofi Annan and myself are independent from anyone.” He rejected the charge that the Governing Council had been handpicked by the Americans. In fact, he later wrote, the council was “as representative an institution of governance as one could imagine in the Iraq of today.”
Vieira de Mello’s tour upset some members of his staff in Baghdad. Ramiro Lopes da Silva, his deputy, recalls, “Here you had Sergio in public saying, ‘I helped create this Governing Council. I support this Governing Council.’ Yet the Governing Council did not really attempt to represent the concerns of the Iraqi population. How did that make the U.N. look?” Vieira de Mello’s friend Timur Goksel, the spokesman for the U.N. in Lebanon, was shocked by his appearances on Arab television. “Sergio dressed like an administrator. He talked like an administrator. He looked like one of them.” Goksel remembers the e-mail he sent to his friend: “I told him, ‘Go to the coffee shops, Sergio. Reach out to the men with the guns.’ ”
Iraqis, too, were skeptical of Vieira de Mello’s claims about the council. An August, 2003, Gallup poll found that three-quarters of Iraqis thought that the policies of the Governing Council were “mostly determined” by the Coalition. While Vieira de Mello was promoting the council abroad, Moqtada al-Sadr was demanding its dissolution. Sadr said that the Hawza—the Shiite religious authority—should run Iraq, and on July 25th he gathered tens of thousands of followers outside Najaf, to show his strength. “The Iraqi Governing Council was set up by the Americans and it must be disbanded,” Sadr declared. He and other militants were gaining clout, in part because they were delivering social services and physical security that the Coalition was not.
Vieira de Mello liked to repeat what he had learned after years of frustration: “Soldiers make bad policemen.” After the looting and chaos that followed the fall of Saddam’s regime, the Justice Department had drawn up plans to deploy to Iraq more than six thousand police trainers. But only fifty trainers had arrived so far. Electricity, water, and other utilities operated intermittently at best. Vieira de Mello reminded Bremer that much of Kosovo and all of East Timor had been burned to the ground when the U.N. arrived but that the U.N. administrators had managed to mobilize international resources for recovery. Yet Bremer seemed unwilling to give the U.N. a substantive role; around this time, Vieira de Mello told George Packer, a reporter for this magazine, that the “neocon side of Bremer’s personality” was emerging.
In meetings with Bremer and General Sanchez, Vieira de Mello asked about the thousands of prisoners being held at a U.S. base near the Baghdad airport who had been crammed into facilities without air-conditioning or sufficient oversight of guards. He argued that human rights were the cornerstone of all that had been wrong with Saddam’s reign. He stressed the importance of creating a database for Iraqis in detention, and he asked that family members and lawyers be granted access to the detainees. He urged that the preventive-detention period be reduced from twenty-one days to seventy-two hours, that status review be instituted, and that something like a public-defender system be created. “I’m not accusing your soldiers of abuse,” he told Sanchez. “I’m saying, ‘You don’t have the checks and balances in place to guard against abuse.’ ”
Vieira de Mello was careful to convey these complaints in private and without shrillness. When he pushed for a visit to the prison at Abu Ghraib, which the Coalition began operating on August 4th, Bremer accompanied him. The morning of the visit, he presented Bremer with a “Wizard of Id” cartoon depicting the King inspecting conditions in a dungeon. The King is shown the various meals the prisoners can choose from—“swill,” “fat-free swill,” “vegetarian swill,” and “kosher swill”—and the prison guard explains, “The human-rights people are coming in the morning.”
He tried to convince himself that his private pressure was having an effect. He told reporters that showers had been built for four hundred Iraqis detained in sweltering tents, that proper buildings would soon replace the tents, and that the number of juvenile detainees in Baghdad had dropped from a hundred and seventy-two to thirty. Nevertheless, he could not get Bremer to take seriously detainee issues, which Bremer believed were the responsibility of the U.S. military, not the C.P.A. At one meeting, Vieira de Mello showed Bremer a photo from a local newspaper showing Iraqis in U.S. detention who had been hooded. “This is incredible,” Vieira de Mello said. Bremer responded, “What’s wrong with hooding?” Eight months later, the scandal at Abu Ghraib broke. (Bremer points out that he was unaware of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and says that hooding suspects is “standard security procedure.”)
The one area in which the Coalition remained amenable to U.N. help was elections. In July, Vieira de Mello invited Carina Perelli, the Uruguayan who ran the U.N.’s election division in New York, to Baghdad to conduct a feasibility study, which she and a team of advisers began on August 1st.
Perelli, a brash, chain-smoking heavyset rebel, and Vieira de Mello, an immaculate, health-obsessed company man, were an unlikely pair. But they had become close friends when they had worked together planning East Timor’s first free elections. In Baghdad, they often completed each other’s sentences, and bantered to ease the tension. “I need a quickie with you,” Vieira de Mello said, grabbing Perelli in the hallway to discuss the election lists. “At my age, I don’t do quickies anymore,” she answered.
Perelli and her team spent almost three weeks touring Iraq. In mid-August, she drove with Vieira de Mello to the Green Zone for a meeting with Bremer. On the drive there, Vieira de Mello said of Bremer, “He still sees elections as a technical matter, and not a wholly political one. You have to educate him like you educated me.” He joked, “The problem with you election people is that you are an acquired taste.”
At the meeting, Bremer presented his plan to have a group of appointed Iraqis draft a constitution, which would then be ratified in a referendum. Perelli disagreed vehemently. “You have to be very careful with referendums in transitions,” she said. “They become public-opinion polls, which, on the basis of my conversations with Iraqis, is not in your interest.”
After the meeting, she expressed worry that Vieira de Mello, her chief ally in the U.N., would be leaving Baghdad in only six weeks. “If you abandon me, I’ll have to deal not only with Bremer but also with whatever jerk the U.N. replaces you with,” she said. “I can handle the Americans, but I can’t handle both.” He assured her that he would stand up for her from Geneva. “I’ve got to get out of here,” he said. “This place is getting to me.”
Vieira de Mello’s dealings with U.N. headquarters were making him especially tense. He had always been exasperated by the organization’s delayed responses, the administrative hassles, the obliviousness to a field staff’s daily trials. But in Iraq these problems were magnified. As devoted as he was to the U.N., he exploded in frustration. “The U.N. is unable to attract the best,” Vieira de Mello complained to Salamé. “And on the rare occasion that the U.N. happens to find the best it doesn’t have the slightest idea how to keep them. If the U.N. ever succeeds, it is by accident.”
Soon after Vieira de Mello arrived in Iraq, the insurgents began experimenting with improvised explosive devices. Initially, they left the bombs on the road at night. But, as the weeks passed, the bombs were better disguised and more powerful. Attacks on Coalition forces increased daily. A hundred and seventeen attacks occurred in May; there were four hundred and fifty-one in July.
At the Canal, Vieira de Mello’s office looked out on a seven-foot-wide gravel road. A hospital and a catering school shared the road. The U.S. military had initially used an armored vehicle to seal off the road, because it ran so close to the back of U.N. headquarters, but senior U.N. officials rejected the practice; if access to the hospital or the school was cut off, the U.N would alienate Iraqis the way the Americans did when they diverted traffic from the Green Zone. On seeing Vieira de Mello’s corner office, whose several windows overlooked the road, Alain Chergui, the bodyguard, thought about snipers, and suggested switching offices. But Vieira de Mello said that he did not want to ask his staff to bear risks that he would not.
Security at the Canal was clearly inadequate. A concrete barrier had been installed five years earlier, during Saddam’s regime, but it had since been propped up next to the perimeter fence, unused. Members of Vieira de Mello’s nine-member “close protection team” were given only 9-mm. pistols. Seven weeks after Chergui pleaded with New York for submachine guns, they arrived—hand-me-downs that had been used by U.N. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. Three of the seven guns were useless, lacking the pins required in order to fire. Meanwhile, the U.N.’s internal threat assessments grew darker. A June 29th report noted, “To date there have been no direct assaults on U.N. staff or facilities, but it is the consensus of the U.N.-Iraq Security Team that it is only a matter of time.”
Whereas in other missions, the U.N. was able to rely on its own peacekeepers—or on local authorities—for intelligence and protection, in Iraq it was wholly dependent on the Coalition. Yet Vieira de Mello’s military adviser, an Australian colonel named Jeff Davie, was not allowed even to enter the Coalition’s operations room or to review its intelligence assessments. Vieira de Mello pushed General Sanchez for greater coöperation. He offered to send over Prentice, his British assistant. “Intelligence will not go beyond these four eyes,” Vieira de Mello said. “And Jonathan is a Brit. He’s one of you!” Sanchez rejected the offer.
By August, the U.N. was torn between needing the Coalition for security at the Canal and believing that the presence of U.S. forces might provoke attack. Insurgents were beginning to target perceived allies of the Coalition. On August 7th, a bomb exploded outside the Jordanian Embassy, killing seventeen people. It was the deadliest attack in Baghdad since the start of the occupation. Although a group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—the Jordanian terrorist who became the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq—was later found to be responsible, at the time most Coalition officials still thought that the insurgency was led by Iraqi criminals and aggrieved former Baathists. U.N. officials shared that view. Indeed, the fact that Bush had drawn a dubious link between Saddam Hussein and the September 11th attacks made them particularly skeptical that groups linked to Al Qaeda were in Iraq.
On August 12th, an internal U.N. memo noted an unusual Coalition report stating that “hundreds of Islamic militants who fled the country during the war have returned and are planning to conduct major terrorist attacks.” The next day, a Lebanese journalist brought Ghassan Salamé blue slips of paper that he had found at the scene of an explosion in the commercial Karada district. “Al Qaeda” was printed on them, in Arabic. After the explosion, someone had thrown the slips out a car window, like confetti. Salamé went to Vieira de Mello and said, “This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this.”
Vieira de Mello had come to believe that the U.N.’s troubled history in Iraq, and its close association with the Coalition, had given it an image problem. “There exists in the minds of many Iraqis mixed feelings about the record of the United Nations here,” he told a reporter. Nevertheless, Vieira de Mello believed that Iraqis saw the U.N. as preferable to the Coalition. The Iraqis he met told him that they hoped for a stronger, not weaker, U.N. role. Iraqis, he told visitors, “see clearly in the United Nations an independent and impartial player that is the only source of international legitimacy.” But Vieira de Mello did not seem to recognize that the Iraqi people could no longer be spoken of collectively—sectarian and ethnic resentments were dividing them into factions. And the Islamist radicals who had infiltrated the country had their own agenda.
Throughout Baghdad, as the violence picked up, Coalition forces got jumpier. On August 8th, U.S. troops at a checkpoint fatally shot five Iraqis, including an eight-year-old girl; the following day, Coalition soldiers killed two Iraqi policemen whom they mistook for criminals. On August 17th, American soldiers killed Mazen Dana, a veteran Reuters cameraman from Palestine; they claimed to have mistaken his video camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
In an e-mail to senior staff, Vieira de Mello wrote, “In previous positions, I always condemned attacks on journalists. Should I not do it here as well?” His aides agreed that the attack should be condemned, but they worried about the implications of condemning an “accidental” attack on a journalist when Vieira de Mello had not publicly criticized the Coalition for killing Iraqi civilians. Nadia Younes, the chief of staff, urged her boss to couch the condemnation of Dana’s killing in a statement that “deplored in general the increasing number of civilian deaths.” But, she noted, “we have to weigh the effect your statements, if you start reacting to all violence, will have on Bremer.” Vieira de Mello, having concluded that his access to the Coalition had shrivelled up, authorized his press officer to issue statements condemning both the attack on Dana and a recent Coalition attack in the Sunni triangle, in which an eight-year-old boy and his mother had been killed. As long as New York didn’t overrule him, it would be the first public U.N. statement on a human-rights violation by the Coalition. “I’ve done all I can do to influence the Americans behind the scenes,” Vieira de Mello told Marwan Ali. “I have to start speaking out.”
Vieira de Mello began to see the growing insurgency as the consequence of an increasingly malignant occupation. Hemmed in by Resolution 1483, however, he concluded that the only way to improve security in Baghdad was to work even harder to get the Coalition to give up power. Coalition troops, he told a Brazilian journalist, had to “have greater sensitivity and respect for the customs of the people.” They had to focus on the dignity of Iraqis, which was being trampled daily: Iraqis had lived under a barbarous regime; the war with Iran had killed hundreds of thousands; they had suffered years of devastating sanctions; their government had been overthrown by outsiders; and now, in “one of the most humiliating periods in the history of this people,” they had almost no say on how they were being ruled.
Vieira de Mello began drafting an op-ed article. An occupation, he wrote, can be “grounded in nothing but good intentions. But morally, and practically, I doubt it can ever be legitimate: its time, if it ever had one, has passed.” He urged the Americans and the British to “aim openly and effectively at their own disappearance.”
Vieira de Mello desperately wanted a break. In mid-August, he asked Larriera if she could join him the following weekend for a trip to Jordan. “I just need one day off,” he told her. But she said she could not skip an upcoming human-rights workshop.
On August 18th, Vieira de Mello received two airline tickets by diplomatic pouch. On September 30, 2003, he and Larriera would fly to Brazil for a month’s holiday; they would then begin their life together in Geneva. In his hotel room, Vieira de Mello presented the tickets to Larriera. “I need to think about the future so I don’t lose my mind in the present,” he said.
The next morning, a Tuesday, he took the stairs up to his third-floor office, greeting colleagues along the way. He read the latest dispatches from the U.N. headquarters in New York, and answered e-mails. In the late morning, his security guards prepared a convoy to take him to the Green Zone. He was scheduled to meet with Bremer and a delegation of U.S. senators. By noon, his armored sedan was ready to go, but Bremer’s office called: the flight carrying the U.S. delegation had been delayed. Vieira de Mello telephoned Larriera and told her that he was counting the days—forty-two—before they would fly to Brazil.
At 3 P.M., he met with a pair of senior officials from the International Monetary Fund, along with Larriera. When the meeting ended, at four o’clock, Larriera left with the visitors.
Around 4:20 P.M., he warmly greeted Gil Loescher and Arthur Helton, two American researchers who had arrived in Iraq that morning to examine the humanitarian costs of the war. He ushered them into his office, and they took seats near his office window. Two members of his team—Nadia Younes and Fiona Watson, a Scottish political-affairs officer—joined the discussion.
As they sat down to talk, a brown-and-orange Kamash flatbed truck was approaching the gravel road that ran behind the Canal Hotel. Kamash trucks were Russian and had been purchased in bulk in 2002 by Saddam Hussein’s government for use in mining, agriculture, and irrigation. They looked like the commercial trucks that were being widely used for reconstruction projects. At 4:27 P.M, the driver turned onto the gravel road. All that was visible on its bed was a metal casing resembling the shell of an air-conditioning unit. Underneath the casing was a cone-shaped bomb that had been bundled up in artillery shells, mortars, and hand grenades. The truck driver, who had received his instructions from Zarqawi, sped down the road so quickly that gravel sprayed the ground-floor windows, startling U.N. staffers. After pulling up directly beneath Vieira de Mello’s office, the driver detonated the bomb. The last words uttered in the room, a split second later, belonged to Vieira de Mello. “Oh, shit,” he said, sounding more resigned than surprised.
Loescher later compared the explosion to “one million flashbulbs going off all at once.” Because U.N. administrators had failed to coat most of the Canal’s windows with blast-resistant film, the windows shattered and sent thousands of glass spears flying. Larriera was in her office on the third floor, which had a steel grate over the window; the grate flew the length of the room, and the steel door was ripped from its hinges. Miraculously unharmed, she began navigating her way along the hallway, which was pitch black—the power had gone out—toward Vieira de Mello’s office. Although she couldn’t see, she half expected to bump into him in the hall. She called out his name softly: “Sergio. I’m here, Sergio. Are you there?” The building was still shaking from the force of the blast, and she could smell something burning.
When she got to Vieira de Mello’s office, it wasn’t there anymore. The roof, the walls, and the floor had caved in, and then crashed down, pancake style, onto the floors below. Larriera made her way out of the building.
Jeff Davie, Vieira de Mello’s military adviser, tried to reach his boss by prying at the rubble from a spot in the rear of the Canal where the collapsed office might be. After he pulled some of the lighter concrete away and created a slight gap, he heard a voice. Davie shouted out to the person who had made the noise. “Jeff, my legs,” Vieira de Mello answered.
Vieira de Mello, whom Davie still couldn’t see, was lucid. Trapped in a shaft and pinned beneath rubble, he could neither see nor feel his legs. “Sergio is alive!” Davie called out. “But he’s trapped between the floors.”
A rescue worker asked Vieira de Mello whether he could move his toes. He said yes. “How about your fingers?” He could. “What day of the week is it?” “Tuesday,” he answered. “Is Carolina O.K.?”
Larriera, who had heard that Vieira de Mello was still alive, climbed the rubble and poked her head inside a gap. “Sergio, are you there? It’s me,” she said, in Spanish. “Carolina, I am so happy . . . you are O.K.,” he answered. “My legs, they are hurting. Carolina, please help me.” She replied, “Be still, my love. I am going to get you out of here.” Realizing that a more industrial rescue effort was needed, she told him that she had to leave to get help. “I am coming back very soon,” she said. However, after she left the Canal, U.S. soldiers established a cordon around the crime scene, and she was prevented from returning to his side.
Ninety minutes after the blast, two Iraqi fire engines pulled into the Canal complex. But critical rescue implements—sledgehammers, ladders, Sheetrock pullers, crowbars, rappelling rope, and backboards to transport the injured—were missing. “Where the hell is everything?” a U.S. captain raged. The Iraqi driver shrugged. “Ali Baba,” he said, using the Iraqi slang for thief. Looters had taken the fire department’s equipment.
A dozen bodies of U.N. officials had already been removed from the rubble, most crushed by falling beams or impaled by flying glass. Salim Lone, the U.N. press officer in Baghdad, spoke to reporters outside the ravaged complex. “It is quite unspeakable to attack those who are unarmed,” he said to CNN. “We are easy targets. We knew that from the beginning, but we came nevertheless, knowing there was a risk, but every one of us wanted to come and help the people of Iraq, who have suffered for so long. And what a way to pay us back.”
Although Bush had justified the war, in part, on a link between Saddam Hussein and terrorism, the U.S. military had not been equipped to respond to a large-scale terrorist attack on civilians. A U.S. Army paramedic, André Valentine, and a fireman, William von Zehle, prepared to descend into the shaft where several people appeared to be buried along with Vieira de Mello. They needed tools that could slice through rebar and I-beams. This equipment is standard for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. fire departments, but the U.S. Army had not brought any to Iraq. Ralf Embro, an emergency worker on the scene, surveyed the shaft helplessly. Vieira de Mello was lodged under an enormous pile of rubble. But Embro had no pulleys and no container with which to remove debris. He scrambled around the darkness of the third floor and returned to the top of the shaft carrying a large straw handbag and a cord that had been used to draw curtains. “This is all we got,” he said. He tied the cord onto the handbag and lowered it down to Valentine, who had descended thirty feet to the bottom of the shaft and was working to stabilize Vieira de Mello and Loescher, who had landed near him and somehow survived. Valentine and von Zehle methodically deposited bricks and mud into the handbag, and Embro hauled it up.
Down in the shaft, Valentine was struggling. He had to amputate Loescher’s legs, using a saw. Vieira de Mello, who could not be moved until Loescher had been extracted, grew less responsive. “I need you to work with me, Sergio,” Valentine said, nudging him back to consciousness. “I need you to stay awake.” Vieira de Mello asked, “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” Valentine didn’t answer.
After nearly three hours, Vieira de Mello was still in the same position. By 7:30 P.M., he responded only to painful stimuli. Half an hour later, he was dead.
Heavy equipment arrived after nightfall. Recovering Vieira de Mello’s body remained a risky task, as the rubble continued to shift. Rescuers attached a rope to his lacerated body, and U.S. soldiers pulled it up. Improbably, he had been lying on the U.N. flag that used to hang in his office. At 9 P.M., his body was placed on a stretcher and removed from the building.
Fifteen U.N. officials and seven civilians died in the blast of August 19th; of the people who had been in Vieira de Mello’s office, only Loescher survived. In a speech the next day, Kofi Annan declared, “We will persevere. It’s essential work. We are not going to be intimidated.”
But the insurgents were not done. On September 22nd, another bomber attacked the U.N. base, killing a U.N. security guard and two Iraqi policemen and injuring nineteen. Kieran Prendergast called the U.N. effort in Baghdad a “suicide mission,” and the staff demanded withdrawal. U.N. “relevance” had to take a back seat to safety. On October 30th, the U.N. pulled out of Baghdad, and the United States was left to contend with Iraq on its own.