THE attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad yesterday raises the stakes in Iraq very considerably. Although the UN operation in Iraq is small – some 300 people in Baghdad and twice that number in the country as a whole – its presence there has an important symbolism both for the Iraqi people and for the other countries contributing to the UK/US coalition operations. It represents the humanitarian face of the international community that has involved itself in Iraq's destiny. Clearly, yesterday's explosion was a carefully planned attack, not just another example of the random violence now occurring on a daily basis. The attacks on US targets have obviously been intended to demonstrate the limits of US authority and to deliver the message that the military victory four months ago was not the end of the story. In the case of the UN, however, it has been assumed that even the most hostile of the US's opponents would support to a stronger role for the United Nations in returning Iraq to self–government. Now that assumption has to be qualified. If the UN's building was chosen because it was a relatively soft target for an act of mindless terrorism, that is one thing. But if it was chosen to send a warning that no outside interests – not even the representative body of the international community – is welcome in Iraq (or elsewhere in the Muslim world?) then the UN Security Council will need to make the strongest possible response. But, either way, there should be no rush to any judgement that would only make matters worse. In particular, the United States must be restrained from using yesterday's attack to justify any widening of the “war on terrorism” without the most careful thought and the clearest of evidence.

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