NEWS IN FOCUS: Optimism replaces fear for aid agencies in Iraq

Gideon Burrows

Supplies from humanitarian organisations are gradually making it into the war-torn country.

There is a noticeable change in the attitude of aid agencies towards their emergency work in Iraq.

While there are still problems distributing fresh water, medical supplies and nutritious food, most agencies are beginning to breathe quiet sighs of relief. The humanitarian disaster they feared looks increasingly less likely.

As the bombs fell last month, relief workers frantically gathered any medical supplies and clean water they could as they prepared for the fallout after the end of the conflict. Today, the situation is more hopeful.

The aid agencies have gradually become more organised on the ground and have launched their own co-ordinating body, independent of the coalition's humanitarian work.

The NGO Co-ordination Committee in Iraq, which now includes more than 18 international NGOs based in Baghdad, has established guidelines for operating neutrally, avoiding duplication of work, and employing as many local people as possible.

Widespread famine in Iraq, feared at the height of the bombing campaign, has so far been avoided, mainly because Saddam Hussein's regime distributed enough food to civilians to last until August.

"The message we are getting is that the need for food is not desperate," says Oliver Burch, emergency programme manager for Iraq at Christian Aid.

"There is some lack of food security in some areas, but food is not the absolute priority right now."

While some agencies are attempting to get more nutritional food into the country by road and air, most are supporting the UN World Food Programme, which already had a distribution network as well as more than 40,000 experienced Iraqi staff before the war began.

"Lots of NGOs are now trying to track the workers down as well as trying to get the World Food Programme's 1,000 foreign staff back in," says a spokesperson at Save the Children.

The World Food Programme and other UN agencies have now trucked a total of 40,000 metric tonnes of food aid and medical kits into the country.

The Salvation Army was successful this week in getting 120 tonnes of cooking fuel into the south of Iraq.

But most aid agencies are concentrating on providing clean water and repairing infrastructure, as well as replacing medicines that were lost during the conflict and the looting that followed.

UK aid agency Care International last week had a convoy of 12 trucks poised on the border with Jordan, carrying enough medicine to treat 25,000 people as well as desperately needed disinfectants, cleaning materials and oxygen respirators.

"There has been a hold up at the border, but we're hoping to get in later today or tomorrow," a spokesperson told Third Sector last week.

Care International, which has worked in Iraq for 12 years, had a network of more than 60 local staff in Iraq during the bombing, most of them engineers who have helped to repair water pipes and power generators since the fighting stopped.

Christian Aid spent several months before the war working with local partners to drill wells and stock supplies in 50 mosques and churches.

"It was thought people would want to come into their places of worship in times of hardship," says Burch.

Housing has also not been a major problem. As yet, only a few thousand people have left their homes, many fewer than had been anticipated. But Burch is concerned about the lack of security.

"There could still be scenarios where there are some nasty ethnic conflicts, when Iraqis from other countries come home to find their land taken over," he says.

Security remains the biggest challenge to aid workers. Care International's own warehouse in Baghdad, which was full of water containers, blankets and medicines, was bombed and looted. Fears of attacks on convoys have prevented many agencies from sending in aid until recently.

Many aid agencies blame the coalition forces for failing to provide a safe environment for them to work.

"It is the responsibility of the occupying power to do that," says Burch.

"They are doing a bit more now than they were, but they've been very slow."

Dominic Nutt, of Christian Aid, who was part of the first aid convoy to reach the southern town of Basra last week, says the security situation is slowly improving. "The more aid gets into Iraq, the safer it becomes, because people aren't so desperate. That means yet more aid can be taken in," he says.

Save the Children is furious about the way the US military has held up aid agencies. One of its chartered planes, carrying enough medical supplies to treat 40,000 people, has remained grounded in Kent since 9 April.

"The US has said that the runway at Erbil, where we want to land, isn't safe, but the UN has said it is safe and secure," complains a spokesperson. "The airline says it is confident about security."

Save the Children also criticises Clare Short's Department for International Development for not releasing funds ahead of the conflict. "We could have had a lot more staff and supplies in Iraq if there had been money ahead of time," says a spokesperson for the charity.

But most UK aid groups say they were well prepared for work in Iraq, and that their relief efforts have been made easier because of the country's established infrastructure for food, water and electricity distribution.

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