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Iraqis seek aid without crosses

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

BAGHDAD -- The president of the Iraqi Red Crescent has urged the International Committee of the Red Cross to stop sending aid marked with red crosses after the internationally protected symbol almost cost four staffers their lives.

Two truck drivers and two volunteers were delivering water and medicine to the city of Haditha four weeks ago when they were captured by insurgents, said Said Hakki, a neurology professor who returned from Florida last year to take charge of Iraqi relief operations.

"They were seized by a terrorist group who threatened to behead them because they thought the crosses on the water and food containers meant the men were Christian missionaries," said Mr. Hakki, who made his plea during a visit last week to ICRC headquarters in Geneva.

He said the terrorists seemed unmoved by the fact that the two trucks themselves were marked with the red crescent symbol typically used in Muslim countries.

In Geneva, an ICRC spokeswoman said the red cross and red crescent are not religious symbols and that international treaties require that both must be respected everywhere.

"Either symbol should be acceptable in either [a Muslim or Christian] country. ... In Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, they use the Red Cross," said Antonella Notari, an ICRC spokeswoman. "People and vehicles bearing these symbols cannot be attacked in any circumstances."

Mr. Hakki said the kidnappers had bound and blindfolded the four men and told them to say their final prayers before the aid workers convinced their captors that they were Sunni Muslims from Fallujah and that their supervisor was a Sunni with strong tribal connections in the area.

The four men then were hauled in front of an impromptu court headed by a long-bearded Algerian. In a series of frantic calls from their satellite phones, the drivers were able to reach Red Crescent officials, who enlisted the support of a local tribal leader.

The men eventually were released, although the insurgents kept the trucks and their contents.

"We know the trucks were sold in an illegal market in Sulaymaniya, northern Iraq," said Mr. Hakki, who said he hopes to recover them through the assistance of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.

The Red Crescent has since suspended truck-delivered aid to most of western Anbar province, asking local branches instead to send their own unmarked trucks to pick up supplies in Baghdad.

Three of the organization's other trucks were set ablaze earlier in the Shi'ite shrine city of Najaf, leaving only four of nine original vehicles still operable. One of its 12 ambulances also was destroyed in Najaf.

"Our drivers and the two volunteers have told us that they want to keep helping, as they believe that the work provides a vital lifeline for the vast majority of decent Iraqis, who are innocent bystanders in the conflict," Mr. Hakki said.