Stay or Go: The Question for NGOs in Iraq

The attack on the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad has once again prompted many aid agencies to reconsider their position and contemplate moving their international staff out of Iraq to safety.

Foto: AP
Further attacks could see the Red Cross evacuate its international staff from Iraq.

​​Iraq-based aid organizations have called the attack on the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) a watershed event for the humanitarian groups working in the war-torn country.

The attack on one of the most consistently neutral and globally recognized NGOs has made it clear that humanitarian organizations in Iraq are considered targets by those opposed to the occupation of the country.
"It is an attack on humanity," Knut Ipsen said who heads the ICRC's German arm.

Red cross not going yet, others already gone

Many non-governmental organizations (NGO's) who have not already moved people out of Iraq are expected to do so in the coming weeks. The Red Cross, which lost employees in the attack that killed at least 34 people and injured hundreds, has so far said it is staying put, but Ipsen said that could change.

"At present there are no concrete plans that we will retreat from Baghdad," Ipsen said. "But should such an attack be repeated, that would soon be considered."

German Interior Minister Otto Schily's office said that it was considering pulling out German technical assistance teams which have been working in Iraq since September. The escalating dangers for NGOs have led many to relocate international staff to Jordan, Kuwait or Cyprus while leaving national staff in charge on the ground in Iraq.

A UNICEF Deutschland spokesman said that following the bombing of the UN headquarters on August 19, his organization pulled out all international staff and left the Baghdad project to the 200 Iraqis working there.

German organization Aktion Deutschland admits to having an exit strategy for its staff in Iraq but the agency’s Janina Niemietz-Walter told that "presently an evacuation is not being considered."

"After the attack on the UN, of course we had fears," she said. "Then when an aid agency like the Red Cross, a fully neutral organization, was got at, it shocked us." Niemietz-Walter added that precautions are being taken. Staff members are transported from door to door in secure groups made up of neutral cars and the international staff no longer goes to the project base to work.

Indistinguishable targets

Most humanitarian organizations are based on the principles of impartiality and independence, meaning they provide aid equally to all those in need and make a point of resisting political, financial or military pressures.

The Red Cross made a concerted effort to distance itself from the coalition forces, refusing to let them use humanitarian flights or their facilities and declining any sort of military protection. "We work exclusively to better the situation for the civilian population," Ipsen said.

Tarneden believes that those attacking the occupation forces fail to distinguish between Western armies, the powers that control them and the international aid community.

"The problem is simple. Our work is politicized. One can no longer see the difference between humanitarian work and politics," he said."We are part of the political process even when we don’t want to be."

© 2003 Deutsche Welle

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