Aid groups in Iraq also under attack
BAGHDAD — American troops are bearing the brunt of the daily attacks in central Iraq, with two more soldiers killed Thursday. But international aid groups are also being targeted - undercutting their humanitarian efforts, and causing them to question the close working relationship many have developed with US forces.
In Baghdad, the World Food Program (WFP) expressed alarm Thursday over the rise in shootings, looting, and attacks on trucks bringing food into the country over the past month. It said security at storage facilities is still a major concern.
Other relief organizations are telling volunteers it's too unsafe for them to go to Iraq. "Security problems have complicated almost every aspect of humanitarian efforts" in Iraq, says Mike Kiernan, a spokesman for Save the Children in Washington. He adds that financial donations in the US "have been less than what many charities had expected."
The US military and aid organizations here have similar goals: restore a semblance of normalcy to the Iraqi people as quickly as possible. Working together, they often are more effective. Although international aid groups are used to working in crisis environments, some worry that the symbols of military occupation in Iraq are mixed with those of humanitarian work to an unprecedented degree. And that may be prompting a backlash.
On July 6, the WFP officein Mosul was targeted in a grenade attack, but there were no causalities. The same night a WFP warehouse in Kirkuk was attacked, and warehouses in Nasiriyah and Basra have also been looted.
Latif Bayati, an Iraqi who is a consultant for the UN Development Program in Baghdad, says men armed with AK-47s attempted to enter that compound last week. The main UN compound in Baghdad is guarded by heavily-armed US forces. But security concerns are so great that a new concrete wall is being built around the compound.
Gunnar Ullnaess is in charge of logistics at the largest World Food Program warehouse in Baghdad, and though he gives American troops high marks for their work, he notes that the WFP has made some cosmetic changes to distance itself from the military.
In the early days of work in Baghdad WFP personnel drove large white SUVs - similar to those used by many American officials - and were often greeted with cold stares.
"They are suspicious, of course. They think, 'This big car, this must also be a fat American,' " Mr. Ullnaess says of local people. The agency finally repainted the cars blue, with "WFP" in huge orange letters on the side, and held a meeting with local staff to emphasize that the project is an international humanitarian operation, not one run by Americans.
"So when we put on the [WFP] stickers, then suddenly people were greeting us," he says.
Mark Smith, aid director for the Springfield,Mo., faith-based group Convoy of Hope, says distinguishing between coalition military personnel and other Westerners may not be the only problem.
"There's also the possibility that you just have people who want to make the place as unstabilized as possible, and any Western target, whether it is NGO, military, press, you name it, would be worth attacking," says Smith, who just returned from an assessment trip to Baghdad.
Convoy of Hope is pleased with the progress it had made rebuilding Iraqi schools, but Smith says that's in part because the field work is spearheaded by Arabs who have long experience in the region.
Back in the US, the Bush administration has put a positive spin on progress in Iraq, but some here are saying just the opposite.
"The situation is going from bad to worse," says the Rev. Ikram Mehanni, senior pastor of John Calvin Presbyterian Evangelical Church in Baghdad. "If the Americans do not control this region soon, they will have very bad problems."
Mehanni and many other Iraqis can't believe that a country as powerful, rich, and technologically advanced at the US is unable to restore electricity. But a strategy to bring stability to the country is still developing, in part because many international relief groups aren't used to working with - and under the rules of - the US military.
Many humanitarian groups questioned or flatly opposed the war; yet now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being dependent on the US for security and even some logistical help. Mr. Smith says Convoy of Hope takes its independence seriously, but that humanitarian groups need to be realistic about the situation in Iraq.
"The military is identifying problems. I'm not necessarily suggesting that the NGOs need to work hand in hand with the military. But the military has got information that the NGOs need to have. And yet a lot of time there just isn't a lot of coordination going on," says Smith, who adds that donations of supplies from the military helped his group successfully complete a medical project.
Peter Singer, a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says the Bush administration has to learn to work with humanitarian groups.
The US military already "has resources spread too thin on the ground, and they need all the help they can get," Mr. Singer says, adding that with the growing difference between upbeat Washington speeches and the harsher reality in the field, "guess who's caught in the middle? The soldiers."
The military is also adjusting to doing humanitarian jobs that few were trained for. Capt. Scott Margolis is in charge of Charlie Battery, which is part of the Third Brigade, 1st Armored Division, based in Fort Riley, Kan. His men know how to call in artillery strikes in two minutes or less, but are now providing security for the Al Yarmook hospital in Baghdad by living on site 24 hours a day.
Captain Margolis is also paying salaries, training a new security force, and helping the hospital administration learn a new way of doing business.
"I was not trained in starting a hospital," Margolis says, "but as an officer, you're trained in administration. You know how budgets work. This is public administration, basically."
"Now we're trying to get bureaucracies running again that are not run by one man, that are not corrupt. We're trying to get Iraqis to do a lot of things themselves - and they're doing it. It's just taking time."