Annan also ordered the withdrawal of peacekeepers patrolling the border between Iraq and Kuwait in a clear sign that a U.S.-led military intervention appears imminent.
“I have just informed the council that we will withdraw the UNMOVIC and atomic agency inspectors. We will withdraw the U.N. humanitarian workers,” Annan told reporters after a closed door meeting with Security Council members.
Annan also said that the U.N.-administered Oil for Food program in Iraq would be suspended during the withdrawal, since oil monitors will not be on the ground to run the exchange of Iraqi-produced oil for humanitarian supplies. He said the U.N. is not abandoning the people of Iraq and that the international body will find a way to provide humanitarian relief.
“This does not mean that should war come to Iraq that the U.N. will sit back and not to do anything to help the Iraqi situation,” Annan said.
On the advice of the United States, weapons inspectors began preparing to leave Iraq Monday and several nations took steps to close their embassies in Baghdad.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency that has been investigating whether Iraq has resumed any nuclear weapons production, confirmed in a Monday report to his agency’s board of governors that his inspectors were advised to leave.
“Late last night…I was advised by the United States government to pull out our inspectors from Baghdad,” ElBaradei said in a statement. He added that the U.N.’s Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, headed by Hans Blix, was given similar advice.
Blix told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet that while “it does not look like there is very much hope” that a war could be avoided, his inspectors would “try to work until the last minute.”
According to media reports, several U.N. inspectors have been seen leaving their Baghdad hotels Monday ahead of a possible evacuation.
The last time U.N. weapons inspectors pulled out of Iraq, in December 1998, the U.S. and Britain launched military strikes some 12 hours later.
The diplomatic community still housed in Iraq also reacted over the weekend to the looming threat of military action. Germany and the Czech Republic shut down their missions in Baghdad, and China also began evacuating its embassy. A number of other embassies have already closed.
The U.S. State Department on Sunday night also ordered nonessential personnel and all family members to leave Israel, Kuwait and Syria in a precautionary move.
Humanitarian agencies in the region have been preparing to react to the needs of the Iraqi people and an expected surge of refugees in the event of a full-fledged conflict.
The Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Angelo Gnaedinger, said that his agency planned to maintain a staff inside Iraq to “carry out life-saving activities,” according to a press release issued by the ICRC. Gnaedinger met with Iraq’s foreign minister last week.
The U.N.’s refugee agency has said that up to 600,000 people could try to leave Iraq during a potential war with about half that number heading for neighboring Iran. Smaller numbers of refugees could flee to Syria, Turkey and Jordan.
“We’re not expecting a flood of people moving across in the early days,” Peter Kessler, spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said. “We’ve already shifted tents and plastic sheeting for some 5,000 people to Syria.”
More than 1.8 million Iraqi refugees fled Iraq after the start of the 1991 Gulf War, according to the UNHCR.
Meanwhile, media organizations have ordered some reporters and their crews to leave Iraq. Both ABC and NBC ordered its reporters out of Baghdad Monday. CNN sent one reporter out of the city but is keeping two others there. CBS is also keeping one reporter in Baghdad for the time being. The Fox News Channel was expelled from Baghdad last month by the Iraqi government.