NEWS IN FOCUS: Aid workers retreat from Iraq's blurred lines of war

Matthew Little and Annie Kelly

The aid agency exodus from Iraq has raised disturbing questions. Mathew Little and Annie Kelly investigate why NGOs are under attack.

On July 22, a clearly marked Red Cross vehicle was attacked on a road near the Iraqi town of Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad. Gunfire from unknown assailants killed one Red Cross worker and seriously injured another.

The attack was a disturbing development for an organisation whose emblem, signifying impartiality between warring parties, is one of the world's most recognised symbols. It was quite clear that the attack was deliberate rather than a case of mistaken identity.

Since then other NGOs have been targeted. Medecins Sans Frontieres has had its buildings and vehicles attacked around Basra. Last week, a bomb disposal expert working for UK-based charity the Mines Advisory Group was shot dead.

The bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad in August prompted an exodus of NGOs, convinced that humanitarian workers were in as much danger as US or British military patrols. The Red Cross withdrew 30 international staff in addition to the 50 it took out in the aftermath of the July attack.

Just 50 expats now support several hundred local Red Cross employees.

Oxfam withdrew its international contingent to Jordan and suspended its programme. Save the Children has told most staff in Baghdad to stay at home and is running a skeleton operation in the city.

"For us the decision to reduce our presence was a very tough one," says Florian Westphal, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"We know that it will have a negative impact on the people we are trying to help, but our action was based on what our people on the ground are saying is the best way forward."

According to one aid worker who spoke to Third Sector, the remaining international NGO workers in Baghdad remain under a voluntary night-time curfew, shuttling between projects and their hotels under armed guard, while the Iraqi population grows more restless over the failure to restore water and electricity supplies - and American troops start to grow more nervous as temperatures reach between 40 and 50 degrees.

Many NGOs have been debating why they have become targets and questions have been raised about whether they are too closely associated with the occupying powers.

"We don't know why we've been targeted," says Westphal. "We're mulling over the theories raised by other agencies and the press - are aid agencies soft targets? Is there confusion about our role?"

"Certainly it's a growing concern for us, but we definitely want to continue working on in Iraq to illustrate that we are independent."

Brendan Paddy, senior media officer for emergencies with Save the Children, says UK-based NGOs have tried to distinguish themselves from the US and British military - they haven't run joint projects with people in uniform or accepted military protection. But they have been victims of circumstances beyond their control.

The first problem is that there is no tradition of NGOs in Iraq, with the exception of religious groups, which means that Iraqis simply don't know what the organisations are. This is compounded by the fact that many have the same country of origin as the occupying forces and thus an assumed political allegiance to them.

But Paddy ascribes some of the blame to US and British forces, in their efforts to win hearts and minds and be seen to deliver humanitarian aid.

"They have blurred the line between their work and ours," he says.

Co-ordination meetings between the occupying powers and NGOs, for example, were held under heavy armed guard in one of Saddam's Palaces, a base for US and British forces.

Such events have led to criticism of NGOs for co-operating with the occupying powers whose legitimacy has been questioned both inside and outside Iraq.

This has come primarily from other aid agencies such as French NGO Premiere Urgence.

Paddy rejects the charge as inconsistent and unrealistic. "If you are willing to co-operate with the Taliban, the previous government of Iraq, the government of Zimbabwe or militia groups, then you should co-operate with coalition forces in Iraq. That doesn't say anything about their legitimacy, it is simply a pragmatic view."

But the debate has thrown into relief contrasting NGO approaches to dealing with state authorities, not just in Iraq but worldwide.

When asked about the relationship between Medecins Sans Frontieres staff in Iraq and the occupying authorities, Jean-Michel Piedagnel, director of the charity's UK branch, replies simply: "We try to avoid them.

"We are completely independent from the coalition forces and the UN. We have to be sensitive about being part of a political agenda. We are trying to work only with the local community and health workers so they understand our only intention is to assist people."

Piedagnel accepts that maintaining a distance from the US and British military authorities will not necessarily help protect NGOs from attack.

MSF itself has been targeted. "We have no idea who is carrying out the attacks, or what their intentions are," he says.

One aid worker does have an idea and it is not an optimistic prognosis, suggesting that whatever NGOs do to emphasise they are not linked to the military it won't help. She says that the attackers, as in Afghanistan, are motivated by the aim of scaring the international community into withdrawing.

"The people who are carrying out the attacks are doing this to get the international community out. And they are doing a good job."

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