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Iraq: Aid Groups Debate Whether To Stay Amid Insecure Conditions

  • Sergei Danilochkin

The recent series of attacks in Iraq, which have killed dozens of soldiers and civilians and left hundreds wounded, have raised anew the issue of security for the aid personnel based in Baghdad. Some larger aid agencies and international organizations have announced they are pulling most of their foreign workers out of the capital. A number of smaller nongovernmental organizations, however, say they will stay put, keep a low profile, and do their best to help the Iraqi people.

Prague, 4 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Following last week's car bombing at the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Baghdad, many aid agencies in Iraq have been re-evaluating their security measures and reviewing the necessity of maintaining a strong presence in the capital.

The ICRC announced that it will withdraw part of its foreign staff from Iraq until the security situation improves. Twelve people were killed in the 27 October bombing of the ICRC, including two Red Cross guards.

Pierre Kraehenbuehl is director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva: "We owe it to all of our colleagues in Iraq to think of their security as a priority. It is a responsibility of ours. For this reason, we are reducing the number of our international staff and implementing additional measures to increase security for our remaining staff."

The United Nations soon followed suit, announcing last week that it, too, has decided to pull all foreign staff out of Baghdad. It says it will keep foreign staff in the safer northern area around Erbil.

The headquarters of the UN in Baghdad was itself targeted by suicide bombers in August. More than 20 people were killed in that attack, including top UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has vowed to reform the UN's security procedures worldwide in the wake of a highly critical report about that bombing.

The UN says the relocation of its international personnel is only temporary and that foreign workers will return to Baghdad as soon as the security situation allows. Chile's ambassador to the UN, Heraldo Munoz, who currently holds a seat on the UN Security Council, commented on the decision to reporters outside the Council's chamber in New York.

"We hope that this withdrawal, that is temporary, could resume very soon with the fullest personnel possible on the ground," he said. "But we understand the Secretary-General [Kofi Annan] and his responsibility to avail for the safety of the UN personnel. We hope, nevertheless, that personnel will be back soon on the ground [in Iraq]."

The withdrawal of foreign aid workers from Baghdad means that the major responsibility for these operations is, in many cases, shifting to local staff. Most aid agencies rely heavily on their Iraqi personnel to conduct their daily business in the country. Medicines Sans Frontiers, a French medical aid group, has 100 local employees and less than 10 international staff members on the ground in Iraq. The British medical aid group Merlin has only three foreigners but 33 Iraqi aid workers on staff.

In contrast to Medicines Sans Frontiers, Merlin says it does not plan to downscale its presence in the capital due to the security threats.

Alexander Christof of the German humanitarian organization Architects for People in Need -- who has been stationed in Iraq for two years -- told RFE/RL from Baghdad that smaller aid groups such as his are more likely to continue their activities in Iraq, despite the security challenges. He says a short emergency relocation of some foreign specialists is possible but the absence of key workers and managers for a prolonged period can significantly harm aid operations.

"The local staff can take over the activities for a week or two or three, and you can easily put activities on remote control, for example, from Amman," Christof said. "But if it is longer than that -- let's say three weeks, four weeks -- then it becomes really serious for the beneficiaries because they don't have anybody else to take care of them."

Christof says his group -- which focuses on health, water and sanitation issues in Baghdad and rural areas -- has no plans to reduce its staff of four foreigners and about 65 local employees. But he says the violence is affecting the aid operations: "Our activities in the field, our humanitarian assistance programs are, of course, really suffering from this violent environment as we have to spend a lot of time on security measures, on security plans to protect our expat staff, but as well as to protect our local staff. We have taken over responsibilities for many thousands of people in Baghdad and the rural areas. And up to now we don't have any plans to suspend or stop these activities because that would immediately lead to a dramatic and very tense situation in the areas where we are working. We plan to stay if security allows."

Iraqi authorities understand that any downsizing of foreign aid operations in Iraq will seriously undermine the humanitarian and social situation in the country. Iraqi Deputy Interior Minister Ahmad Kazim Ibrahim has promised aid groups that efforts will continue to beef up security measures.

"I sent a message to humanitarian agencies working in Iraq to continue their operations and not be affected by this criminal act and [promised] the Iraqi police will continue their work to maintain security," he said.

Meanwhile, aid workers who have decided to remain in Iraq are taking precautions to reduce the risks. The general rule is for foreign workers to keep low profiles, to differentiate themselves from coalition authorities, and to position their aid groups as independent, nonpartisan organizations that are not associated with the occupying forces.

Many aid agencies in Baghdad have taken identifying signs off their doors and also are using vehicles without logos.

"We have to show our independence and neutrality, which means that we totally have to avoid weapons," Christof said. "We do not have bodyguards. But we take passive measures, like avoiding any kind of visibility, reducing the movements within the country or within Baghdad to the minimum which is essential to run a project."

Aid organizations in Baghdad are very reluctant to openly discuss security issues for fear of causing additional risks to people on the ground. But smaller NGOs generally seem to believe that they are less likely to be targeted if they perform their activities in Iraq without drawing undue attention to themselves.

David Pankratz is executive board member of a committee created to coordinate the work of NGOs in Iraq. He told the Economic Intelligence Unit that "as far as we can tell, there are not people plotting in dark little corners to hit the small NGOs."

No matter how many precautions are taken, however, Christof says such risks simply go with the job: "Frankly speaking, every foreigner who is walking around in the streets of Baghdad is a potential target. This is part of our job. Nobody will play the hero in this country, but we have to balance very well what is the impact of your humanitarian assistance with the risk that is combined with it."