Humanitarian aid is a casualty in Iraq

Within hours, the kidnapping of CARE administrator Margaret Hassan made headlines around the world. What doesn't make headlines is that hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqi citizens have been kidnapped in the past year. The goal of kidnappings may be to extort money or to instill fear and foment chaos. Either way, life in Iraq has been turned upside down by the disappearance and ransoming or murder of countless people.

Word of Margaret's apparent execution last week cut us to the quick. She was a cherished friend and colleague in the international humanitarian aid community. We remember her as a gracious hostess, a ferocious reader, an admirer of art, and a tireless fighter for justice. While we mourn for Margaret, we also fear for many men and women who have disappeared in Iraq whose names you'll never hear.

In our work as Iraq country representatives for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), we've witnessed the deterioration of Iraqi society since the US-led invasion in 2003.

An already crippled society has spiraled into chaos. Basic security, fundamental infrastructure, and rudimentary medical care have deteriorated under coalition control - a complete contradiction of the obligations of an occupying force as specified by the Geneva Conventions.

Immediately after the coalition invasion, members of the international aid community came together in Iraq to consider how we could protect humanitarian work. We define humanitarian aid as completely nonpartisan. Humanitarian aid workers do not carry guns, do not have armed guards, and do not associate with anyone carrying weapons. "Aid" or "reconstruction" carried out at gunpoint automatically has a political agenda.

US efforts at reconstruction and relief - limited though they have been - are virtually indistinguishable from military and political actions. A contractor in an armored Humvee, surrounded by armed guards, does not look like someone who has come to help.

The blurring of distinctions between political action and true humanitarian work in Iraq has led to one of the greatest tragedies of all: the crippling - if not complete demise - of the international aid community there.

Margaret Hassan's story symbolized this vividly. Her murder has pushed any aid organizations still active in Iraq into an even deeper crisis over their ability to stay.

Hassan's employer, CARE, one of the most respected and effective aid organizations working in Iraq, ceased operations in Iraq on Oct. 28 - 10 days after Hassan's kidnapping. Doctors Without Borders closed Iraq operations this month. Others will surely follow.

Our organization closed its operation in Baghdad in September when our friends, Italian aid workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, were kidnapped. We expect to continue our work helping install water purifiers and rebuild clinics for those with spinal cord injuries and lost limbs. But that will be through some measure of assistance remotely from Amman, Jordan. The absence of our partners on the ground, such as CARE, will make this even harder.

At the very moment when Iraqis most desperately need clean water, medical supplies, schools, and housing, the people best equipped to answer those needs without any political agenda are being forced to flee because chaos reigns.

When water-purification systems cannot be delivered, children die. When hospitals cannot get even the most mundane medicines and supplies, people die.

We see clearly that the choice to deal with conflict by violent force only creates more violence. Reconstruction has not occurred. Civil society has not been restored.

A new study, published last month in the highly respected British medical journal The Lancet, provides evidence of ongoing violence against civilians, much of it caused by coalition airstrikes in highly populated areas. A team of international researchers, led by Les Roberts of Maryland's Johns Hopkins University, estimates that 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died due to violence since the 2003 invasion. The findings are much higher than previous estimates, and don't even include the recent siege of Fallujah. This study underscores the seriousness of the call by Louise Arbour, UN high commissioner for human rights, to investigate US military actions in Iraq.

Despite billions spent, little has been fixed or solved in Iraq. And the Iraqi people are paying the dearest price.

Shock and awe, followed by chaos and increasing militarization, is a failure. We must find a different strategy for Iraq.

Rick McDowell and Mary Trotochaud coordinated relief efforts in Baghdad from March 2003 until last September for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker international social justice organization awarded the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize for wartime humanitarian service.

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