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Iraq: Aid Agencies Say Deteriorating Security Situation Impeding Their Activities

As attacks on coalition troops occur in Iraq on an almost daily basis, many aid agencies say the security situation in the country is deteriorating and that their activities are directly threatened.

Prague, 26 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- International aid groups in Iraq say the security situation is worsening in the country, directly impeding their work.

The feeling of insecurity is shared at all levels, from companies under direct contract to the U.S. government to independent nongovernmental agencies with long experience operating in danger zones worldwide.

Frank Dall, a top official at Creative Associates International, a Washington-based company that has a $62 million U.S. government contract to help rebuild Iraq's education system, said this week there is an "ad hoc security situation which is extremely dangerous in Iraq."

He told a public briefing in Washington organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that his teams fear becoming what he called "soft targets" as some groups in Iraq continue to attack coalition forces.

Dall added that -- amid continuing lawlessness in some areas -- his aid teams also are encountering hostility from some of the groups they want to help. He said "there is aggressive behavior toward us.... In one instance, we had car windows removed and smashed by pupils after we had checked out a school."

A top official from another U.S. contractor, Research Triangle International, told the same conference on 24 June that their teams always travel in convoys due to security concerns.

The statements come as attacks on coalition soldiers show no signs of tapering off more than two months after U.S. soldiers took Baghdad on 9 April, ending the regime of Saddam Hussein. In the past two months, almost 70 U.S. and British troops have died in Iraq from hostile attacks or in accidents and other noncombat incidents.

Megan Chisholm, a coordinator in Baghdad for the international charity CARE, told RFE/RL that the security situation has particularly deteriorated over the past week.

"It definitely is deteriorating. Particularly this week, it has deteriorated significantly. I guess the things that would make us say that is we have seen quite a few more incidences of cars being blown up, we've been hearing a lot more shooting on the streets at night, and a lot more roadblocks and so on that indicate there are a lot of security incidents happening and increasing markedly," Chisholm says.

Chisholm says all of the attacks have targeted coalition soldiers, not aid groups. But she says aid workers fear the attackers will view them as part of the occupation authority and include them as easy targets of opportunity. Aid workers are particularly vulnerable because they are unarmed and do not use bulletproof vehicles.

The CARE official says her organization has curtailed some of its activities to minimize what it sees as the growing danger to its staff.

"We monitor that situation and change the pattern of how we work in order to try to minimize things," Chisholm says. "So, the decreasing security does restrict our movement. It restricts the amount we can travel out of Baghdad, out into the governorates [provinces] where we are working. It restricts our movement within Baghdad, and it also restricts the amount of staff we can have here at any one time."

CARE has a $15 million annual budget for Iraq and is focusing mostly on repairing infrastructure. It is particularly active in rehabilitating water and sanitation systems to provide people with clean water.

Other aid groups also say they are restricting some of their movements due to the poor security situation. Brendan Paddy, a spokesman for the international charity Save the Children, told RFE/RL from London that his group -- like most others -- now no longer uses the highway from Amman to Baghdad, which has been the primary route for bringing supplies into the capital.

"There have been a number of attacks on individual vehicles and more recently on convoys. The attacks on convoys are a very worrying development because by traveling in convoy, Save the Children and other agencies have hoped to avoid the attention of bandits or people who are discontent with the occupation of the country," Paddy says.

"Unfortunately in the past two weeks, two quite large convoys of vehicles have been fired on and, as a result of that, Save the Children has had to take the decision that we cannot safely use that route to bring staff into the country," he says.

Paddy says coalition patrols move along the road but that the patrols are not sufficient to secure it. The road passes through the troubled city of Al-Fallujah, where there have been repeated attacks on coalition forces. The area has seen two major sweeps by U.S. troops in recent weeks to route out armed Hussein loyalists.

The Save the Children official says many aid workers fear that as the U.S. steps up security operations against Hussein loyalists, the sweeps will heighten the possibility that Westerners will be targeted for revenge attacks.

Save the Children has an annual budget of more than $10 million for Iraq and focuses on repairing and restocking schools and hospitals and protecting children from abuse in orphanages and prisons.

For some agencies, fears of being confused with the U.S.-led occupation authority have increased as Washington this month called on charitable organizations working in Iraq to publicize financial contributions to their activities by the U.S. government. Reuters reported this week that USAID has asked five organizations receiving donations from Washington to seek clearance from it before they have dealings with the media.

The request to publicize U.S. government contributions is seen by many charities as putting at risk their image as independent organizations with no political affiliations. Nongovernmental organizations have traditionally viewed an independent image as vital to assuring their safety in conflict zones, where some donor governments may be viewed as an enemy by some elements of the population.

The U.S. administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, announced plans this week to step up security in Iraq by forming a new all-Iraqi guard force. The force, composed of ex-soldiers, is intended to protect key utility and oil installations that increasingly have been targets of sabotage.

Announcement of the new force, whose size has not yet been detailed, comes as the Coalition Provisional Authority also plans to create a new Iraqi army. Washington disbanded Iraq's former army of some 400,000 men last month in order to purge Ba'athist loyalists.