Iraq aid groups reduce presence

Oxfam pulled out of Iraq Wednesday; the UN and ICRC are reducing their staff.

In the aftermath of the bombing of the UN headquarters here Aug. 19, those normally on the front line of rebuilding war-ravaged societies are hunkering down - or going home. United Nations and Western relief workers are reassessing their missions in postwar Iraq, trying to weigh the humanitarian needs of Iraqis against their own need to stay safe.

Security barriers are being built or reinforced, bullet-proof vests line office hallways at the ready, and luggage of relief staffers is being piled up daily for flights out as agencies rein in their programs, or - in some cases - stop them altogether. Officials warn that such a slowdown could undermine the US-led rebuilding effort.

There is no wholesale exodus yet, but relief workers are increasingly filling sandbags instead of gaps in humanitarian aid projects. Key players in the Iraq relief effort - the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - have been threatened and targeted. A bunker mentality is taking hold.

UN officials say that they are evacuating more than 200 of their 350 Baghdad staff, many of whom were wounded in the blast. The ICRC this week also began sending home more than half its Baghdad staff of 200 - the culmination of a series of security measures launched when one field officer was murdered on a road south of Baghdad on July 22.

Citing security risks, the British charity Oxfam this week pulled out of Iraq completely. Most others are sharply curtailing plans.

"When you are in a war, you know more or less what to avoid," says Nada Doumani, spokeswoman for the ICRC in Baghdad. "But this is totally different: it is indiscriminate, with no pattern and no rationality."

As the occupation force in Iraq, US troops are responsible for security here; President Bush on Tuesday made clear that the US wants help rebuilding Iraq, and that it would require "substantial" time and money.

But US forces are having a tough time providing for their own security; this Tuesday, the US death toll since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major fighting, exceeded the number of US troops killed during the war.

Relief professionals say that, in some respects, their situation today - being attacked by an unseen enemy, with unclear motives - is more dangerous than during wartime, when risks are often simpler to calculate.

"The ultimate victims ... are obviously the Iraqis themselves," says Ramiro Lopes da Silva, the acting UN chief in Iraq since the death last week of Sergio Vieiro de Mello in the blast, speaking Wednesday in an interview.

Mr. Da Silva spoke to a handful of journalists in a mess tent erected near the destroyed UN headquarters - part of the UN temporary "offices," along with some air-conditioned containers - with three small wounds from the blast still evident and covered with pieces of tape.

The UN blast and drawdown is having a ripple effect on aid agencies, large and small, and "even private contractors and companies that were intending to operate in Iraq are now going to have to reassess the levels of threat and risk, before they take their next steps," Da Silva said. "The result is a setback in the process of stabilization."

Legal protection

The UN Security Council on Tuesday voted unanimously on a resolution to protect relief workers, declaring that attacking them would now be considered a war crime. On paper, at least, this provides a measure of protection.

But even groups like the ICRC, which already has a strict mandate of neutrality and are well respected worldwide, are having trouble in Iraq. The ICRC has weathered extraordinary conflicts. It was the cornerstone of feeding Somalia during a famine in 1992, though it was forced to use armed Somali guards at the time to get by.

The ICRC was the only organization to stay in Kigali throughout the 1994 genocide. And it was crucial in Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991, providing fresh water, sanitation, electricity and hospitals to Iraqis caught up in the destruction of the war.

Cutting back to just "essential projects" now has been a tough choice - and one that raises the alarm for other aid groups. "We believed - maybe we're too naive - that our emblem and what it stood for would protect us," says Ms. Doumani. "Now we are looking for different ways of operating to provide the same services, with minimum risk."

Officials of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) downplay those risks, and calculate that pumping billions into the economy will provide enough incentive for ordinary Iraqis to want to rebuild, and that anti-US guerrillas will then fade away.

Already, $2 billion is being invested in projects, and CPA officials note that the health budget alone - which they put at eight cents per Iraqi during the last six months of the former regime - is now "vastly higher," with spending at $9 per person.

"There are clearly several hundred people out there who want to attack Iraqis and Iraqi infrastructure ... but [Baghdad] is not in any state of chaos," says a CPA spokesman.

"Where are they living?" asks Alice Bernard Sessa, head of the French agency Télécoms Sans Frontières, which provides satellite telephone service in disaster areas and postwar environments, referring to the Fort Knox-type security measures that ring the CPA headquarters on the former Republican Palace grounds.

In Iraq, TSF teams travel to different regions to give free telephone service - up to 100 to 200 calls a day - where none exists.

"It has been just a downward spiral, that gets worse and worse," says Ms. Bernard Sessa. In mid-July, their teams were forced to leave Samarra after just one day. Last week, one vehicle was shot at and nearly car-jacked.

Finally the group decided to go north, to Kirkuk - normally a much more secure, Kurdish area - but two days of lethal rioting there between Kurds and ethnic Turkmen stymied those plans.

"It's just not possible to do anything - it's impossible to work," says Bernard Sessa. She is now sending some teams home.

"For most Iraqis, the situation since the war hasn't improved, but it has stabilized - and now that is in danger," says Alexander Christof, head of the German non-governmental organization (NGO) Architects for People in Need.

'No massive pullout'

While some are drawing down their numbers, few small NGOs have received direct threats, and so far "there is no massive pullout," says Philippe Schneider, head of the NGO Coordinating Committee in Iraq, which has 54 group members. "For sure we don't have the financial and human resources to rebuild Iraq, but our mission is to fill the gap, and that gap still exists," Mr. Schneider says. "Speaking about reconstruction today is not possible, because for that you need stable ground."

Besides concern about security, grief remains. At the downtown offices of the UN Children's Fund - far from the bombed UN HQ - a single candle burns next to a portrait of the young chief of operations, Canadian Chris Klein-Beckman, who was in the targeted building for a meeting.

A black ribbon mars the corner of the portrait.

"We're still bringing in 12.5 million liters of water a day for hospitals and the impoverished, and we're still bringing in vaccinations and High Protein Bisquits for children - all this is going on, but you have people in mourning," says Geoffrey Keele, spokesman for UNICEF. "Instead of 12 hours a day of working with enthusiasm, we have people in offices consoling each other, crying."

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