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Iraq: In Wake Of UN Bombing, Aid Agencies Mull Their Own Security

  • Charles Recknagel

In the wake of the UN headquarters bombing in Baghdad that killed 23 people, aid agencies are wrestling with whether to reduce their staffs in Iraq or continue at full strength despite the security problems. RFE/RL looks at how several groups are responding.

Prague, 26 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Aid agencies are intensely reviewing how to continue operating in Iraq after last week's bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters showed that they, as well as coalition forces, are targets for well-organized attacks.

In the wake of the bombing, which killed 23 people and injured at least 100 more, the UN has withdrawn many of its expatriate staff from Baghdad in what it is calling a "partial evacuation."

It is unclear just how many people have been pulled back, but press reports have quoted UN officials as saying privately that as many as 250 international staff -- or 70 percent of the total foreign staff -- could be relocated from the Iraqi capital to Jordan and Cyprus. Others, including UN resident coordinator in Jordan Christine McNab, have said they expect 50 percent of the foreign staff to come out.

Much of the expatriate staff remaining in Baghdad has moved into tents and containers beside the wreckage of the headquarters building. Some new staff members also have arrived in recent days to help set up operations in the temporary quarters.

The UN has said it is not going to let the bombing scare it out of Iraq. But it remains to be seen how much its work will be scaled back due to the now-vivid security concerns. UN officials are discussing how to provide much better protection for facilities and staff in the future and any return to normal operations is likely to depend on providing that security first.

Other international aid agencies, too, are wrestling with how to respond to the threat of attacks. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced over the weekend it is withdrawing an unspecified number of its foreign staff due to what it said was specific information it might be hit. ICRC spokeswoman Nada Doumani told reporters in Baghdad yesterday that the threats left staff with no choice but to take "appropriate measures."

"We've received some information that we are taking seriously, that we may be the target of an attack," she said. "And at this stage, given the volatile environment in which we are working and the level of violence that is prevailing still in the capital, we cannot but take the appropriate measures."

The ICRC spokeswoman refused to characterize the agency's response as an "evacuation" of staff. Instead she said that some people were being "redeployed" while others are staying in Iraq. "We are not evacuating Iraq. We are really committed to staying in Iraq. What is happening now is that we are redeploying some of our expatriate staff outside of Baghdad, in the north and in the neighboring countries," she said.

Doumani did not say what the ICRC's future plans in Iraq will be, other than to say the agency will work on "ways to continue to operate in a different way." The ICRC is also reported to be making a thorough review of its security arrangements.

The bombing of UN headquarters is not only causing large international agencies to reassess their ability to work in Iraq. It also is affecting the myriad smaller groups now operating in the country.

One such group is Save the Children, which has an annual budget for Iraq of over $10 million and focuses on repairing and restocking schools and hospitals, as well as protecting children from abuse in orphanages and prisons.

Spokesman Brendan Paddy described the immediate response of his organization to the UN bombing by telling RFE/RL, "Save the Children and many other organizations are obviously tightening their security, but they are also looking very closely at what they might need to do with their operations in the future."

He added: "I think there is a general feeling among the agencies that they don't want to rush to judgment because it isn't yet clear why the UN was attacked and who was responsible for the attack. And those questions are really key in deciding the level of risk that aid agencies like Save the Children are going to be facing in the future."

How the agencies assess the future level of risk could hinge upon what the U.S.-led coalition and the UN now do to provide better security for foreign organizations operating in Iraq. Both are under growing public pressure to announce new measures soon.

In Washington, the pressure has taken the form of media and other calls to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq from the current level of 136,000 soldiers. The U.S. troops are supplemented by another 20,000 soldiers from other countries, primarily Britain. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has so far resisted any increase in U.S. troops but said it welcomes contributions from other nations.

Other voices are calling on the UN to field its own small force to guard the facilities of UN and UN-affiliated agencies. Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, recently suggested a NATO country should organize a multinational force of about 3,000 soldiers "with the sole mission of protecting the UN" but under a general U.S. military umbrella.

As the public debate over security grows, the first commercial airline which was set to start service to Iraq today announced it is postponing its inaugural flight over safety concerns. The Polish national carrier LOT said the flight, due to start service to Al-Basrah, could be delayed by one week.

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