- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

International aid workers, whose pacifist-tinged neutrality once protected them from harm while they worked in combat zones, now find themselves as hated by militants in Iraq as the American soldiers there. The militants target them as missionaries for a Western-style cul-

ture that they consider a threat to Islamic traditions, and ordinary Iraqis fear the presence of a foreign aid worker in their midst will attract the next suicide bomber.

Ross Mountain, former deputy special representative in Iraq for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, says the three-dozen remaining non-Iraqi U.N. workers in Baghdad — known as “international staff” — have had to modify their approach dramatically.

“In the past, U.N. humanitarian groups have operated without armed guards — wrapping ourselves in the people’s good will and our blue flags, and providing all the assistance the people need,” he said.

The terrorists who target aid organizations “are people who are not particularly interested in the welfare of the Iraqi population. They are interested in scoring political points. And we are very soft targets.

“When you blow up 20-odd U.N. staff, it is easier than going after a military target, and it obviously has an impact,” Mr. Mountain said.

Terrorists detonated a truck bomb outside the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad last year, killing top envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 19 others.

The kidnapping and believed slaying of Margaret Hassan, CARE International’s director of operations in Iraq, and the decision of the aid organization to shut its offices in the country hastened the exodus of other relief groups from the region.

Doctors Without Borders pulled out last month, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has decided to phase out its humanitarian assistance programs in southern and northern Iraq before Jan. 1.

“Regretfully, we had to recognize the reality that due to security constraints, we are less and less able to address Iraq’s needs,” said Mark Bartolini, the IRC’s director for the Middle East and Asia.

“The deteriorating security conditions reveal a trend toward attacks against Iraqi civilians who associate with international agencies, as well as against the international staff of those organizations.”

Many aid agencies have moved their most vulnerable employees out of dangerous areas, or out of the country completely, and have replaced their expatriate staff with Iraqis.

Pentagon officials blame the “changing dynamics” of the enemy for the fragile security situation.

“We’re not fighting an Iraqi government; we’re fighting insurgents and dead-enders and criminals who aren’t following the standard rules of engagement,” a Defense Department official said on the condition of anonymity.

“Insurgents create a hostile environment on the ground, and NGOs aren’t comfortable staying there,” the official said, using the abbreviation for nongovernmental organizations.

Oliver Burch, Iraq program manager at London-based Christian Aid, said his group’s workers and their partners go about their business in taxis and try to blend in with the local population.

Mr. Mountain, the top U.N. representative, said, “This is not how we operate in Sudan, Congo, Burundi. This is not to say aid workers have not been killed before. There have been numerous efforts, but there has not been a concerted campaign.

“Our NGO partners’ very presence puts the Iraqis [working for them] at greater risk than their absence.”

In recent conflicts, military forces have become increasingly involved in so-called “operations other than war,” including provision of humanitarian aid.

Aid groups say this involvement is partly to blame for “blurring the lines” between their staff and U.S.-led coalition troops in Iraq.

“It’s very important for there to be a clear line between what the military is doing — particularly if large parts of the population regard it as belligerent — and humanitarian groups,” Mr. Burch said.

“The latter should be seen as neutral.”

As for the military, he added, “They see aid work as a way to make friends with the local population that is hostile. And from the politicians’ point of view, it is a way of selling the intervention as a humanitarian one.

“We have a situation where the Iraqi population is totally confused. They cannot distinguish between foreign forces and foreign aid workers,” Mr. Burch concluded.

The Iraq Project and Contracting Office (PCO) is responsible for allocating nearly $12.4 billion of the $18.44 billion in the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund approved by the U.S. Congress.

The PCO is guided by the Defense Department on matters relating to program management and contracting, and by the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO) at the State Department on matters relating to needs and priorities.

John Procter, spokesman for the PCO, said the office takes “proper security steps to ensure both our personnel and project sites are well-protected.”

“Our contractors have stuck their necks out and are operating in a very challenging environment. They have stepped up to the plate, and have done a great job,” he said.

The PCO works with partners in Iraq, of which the largest is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the electrical and oil sectors.

Mr. Procter declined to speculate about whether the involvement of troops in these projects made them and other humanitarian groups targets for terrorists.

The United Nations turned down an offer of protection by the U.S. military to shield its headquarters prior to the Aug. 19, 2003, bombing.

Army Lt. Col. Joseph Yoswa, a Pentagon spokesman, said, “We do provide a large amount of humanitarian relief in Iraq, and we do help in reconstruction efforts.”

He said this role is not unusual for “our Corps of Engineers and civil affairs units that have provided assistance in different countries — parts of South America and Bosnia and Kosovo. We also did it in World War II.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also is working with Iraq’s interim government to help Iraqis rebuild their country.

Dr. Frederick Burkle was a key health planner with USAID in Iraq, where he served for three months after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. A medical officer with the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), he was one of the first senior U.S. health officials to enter Baghdad and southern Iraq.

Now at the Center for International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies at the Johns Hopkins University Medical Institutions, Dr. Burkle said armed forces should be prevented from dominating humanitarian assistance.

According to U.N. guidelines, humanitarian action should be conducted separately and clearly distinguished from military-led relief operations.

At the same time, practical realities on the ground have necessitated various forms of civil-military coordination for humanitarian operations.

The United Nations has instructed its staff that the use of military or armed protection for humanitarian agencies is “an extreme precautionary measure” that should be taken only in exceptional circumstances.

Oliver Phillips, UNICEF communications officer in New York City, said the experience of many people who have been kidnapped “shows that no matter how many steps you take, there are no cast-iron guarantees that you are safe.”

Dr. Burkle added, “The NGOs will tell you that wearing protective gear brings attention and aligns you to the coalition. But it doesn’t make any difference who you are now.”

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