Key Aide to Annan Retires Abruptly Amid U.N. Scandal
BY BENNY AVNI - Special to the Sun
December 23, 2004
UNITED NATIONS - One of the biggest power players at the United Nations abruptly announced his retirement yesterday in what may signal the beginning of a Turtle Bay shake-up, just one day after Secretary-General Annan said that the scandals and attacks from outsiders had "cast a shadow" on the institution.
In an announcement that surprised even the U.N. spokesman, Fred Eckhard, who made it at a regular press briefing after a note was passed to him from upstairs, Mr. Annan said that he accepted a request from his chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, to retire "with very mixed emotions." His retirement will take effect on January 15, Mr. Annan said in the statement.
Many diplomats at the United Nations said yesterday they believe the departure of Mr. Riza was the result of American pressure on Mr. Annan, who recently visited Washington in an attempt to mend fences with the Bush administration.
Relations were harmed after Mr. Annan's famous pronouncements on the Iraq war, which he called "illegal," and his advice, on the eve of the presidential election, against an attack on Fallujah. Many in Washington are also incensed about a host of scandals at the organization, which receives 22% of its operating budget from America.
Mr. Riza, 70, who has been chief of staff since January 1997, is considered the most influential policy adviser to the secretary-general, and many feel he was a leader in a policy that is perceived as adversarial to Washington, especially on issues related to Iraq and Israel. A U.N. insider said Mr. Riza leads a group of advisers who have called on Mr. Annan to take a hard line, urging him to refuse to share information with the congressional oil-for-food investigations. Some diplomats even went so far as to say that there was pressure on Mr. Annan regarding his top staff at the meetings last week with Secretary of State Powell and his presumed replacement, Condoleezza Rice.
"I totally deny that," a deputy American ambassador, Anne Patterson, told The New York Sun yesterday. She said she called Mr. Riza on an unrelated matter earlier yesterday and conveyed surprise at the retirement announcement, adding that Washington had not pressured Mr. Annan on any staff issues.
Diplomats familiar with America's relationship with the U.N. were skeptical. "By allowing Riza to retire/resign, Annan is removing his closest associate, and this you can say is viewed by many observers as a positive development," said one such diplomat who asked not to be identified. "They felt that Riza was part of the problem."
While Mr. Riza's name was scarcely mentioned in the oil-for-food scandal, U.N. sources told the Sun that recently the 38th floor, where top U.N. brass is located, was "swept" by investigators under Paul Volcker, who is conducting the U.N-sanctioned investigation into the scandal. Computer hard drives and files were taken for examination. After resigning, one source pointed out, Mr. Riza would not be subject to interviews by Mr. Volcker's team. But he hastened to add that he does not know whether Mr. Riza was a suspect or even if he had already been interviewed.
"Three reasons," Mr. Riza himself said when asked by the Sun yesterday to explain his resignation, "It is spelled A-G-E." Sources close to him said Mr. Riza has wanted to retire for a long time and felt that at his advanced age, the end of the year was a good time.
But according to U.N. sources, Mr. Riza is not alone in what even the most pro-U.N. diplomats admit might become a general trend of "cleaning of the stables" in the higher echelons of Mr. Annan's administration.
The U.N. controller, Jean Pierre Halbwachs of Mauritius, is said by top U.N. officials to have announced his desire to resign soon as well.
Even more ominous, according to a U.N. diplomat, the undersecretary-general at the head of the department of management, Catherine Bertini, intends to leave in March. Ms. Bertini is the highest-ranking American in Mr. Annan's inner circle, and she is said to be "fed up."
In addition, Mr. Annan would soon have to fill key posts such as his special representative to the Middle East, which will be vacated next week when Terje Roed-Larsen ends his stint there, as well as the head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which deals with Palestinian Arab refugees. According to two sources, Peter Hansen, who currently heads the agency, is going to be pushed out when his current term ends in March.
Mr. Riza, a Pakistani national who is a veteran of the U.N. and diplomacy, is the most powerful of all these names. He has been at Mr. Annan's side through thick and thin, including in what is considered the secretary-general's most glaring failure, the Rwanda genocide in 1994.
The old-line Pakistani diplomat was said by his associates to be mild-mannered and cool under pressure. His style, said one U.N. insider, is a bit "roundabout." Unlike Americans, who believe that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, Mr. Riza always zigs and zags, he said.
Israeli diplomats, though, have been up in arms about Mr. Riza for some time, saying he represented the Islamic-Arab hard line in Mr. Annan's close circles. "In those moments that the secretariat needed to show a balanced and fair approach, Riza's influence was unhelpful," Israel's ambassador, Dan Gillerman, told the Sun.
Mr. Riza was rumored for a long time to be on his way out, but the abruptness and the timing of yesterday's announcement, on a slow news day on the eve of the holidays - with most beat reporters out on vacation - raised suspicions.
"Annan is not resigning, why should Riza?" said one high U.N. official who asked for anonymity. Only on Tuesday night, he added, Mr. Riza and other top officials attended a holiday party on the 38th floor. The official said that he had no inkling that Mr. Riza was going to be out of office the next day.
Neither did most U.N. diplomats, including ambassadors on the Security Council. "I heard it just now," Ambassador Andrey Denisov of Russia said. "It is a surprise to me," Chilean Ambassador Heraldo Munoz said. Algerian Ambassador Abdallah Baali said that he had known for a long time that Mr. Riza intended to leave, but even he said the timing was a surprise to many of his colleagues.
Mr. Riza has raised the ire of the U.N. staff union recently at a meeting in the aftermath of allegations against the head of the U.N.'s internal investigative arm. Some said that the chief of staff had worked to squash the investigation into allegations of abuse of power. When the union voted for a resolution that expressed no confidence in Mr. Annan's senior management, many privately said this was directed at Mr. Riza.
Earlier, Mr. Riza, who was Mr. Annan's lieutenant at the peacekeeping department under Secretary-General Boutros Ghali, ignored cable messages from a U.N. commander in Africa, Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire of Canada, rather than passing them along to higher-ups in the organization and to the Security Council. General Dallaire had repeatedly warned that mass murder was being planned in Rwanda. "Mistakes were made," Mr. Riza admitted later. "They were misinterpretations of the information that was available, and we have to learn from that and we have to move ahead."