Monday, October 27, 2003

NEW YORK — Private relief agencies were considering whether to suspend or curtail operations in Iraq after a suicide attack at the Red Cross headquarters yesterday, creating new headaches for coalition officials seeking to speed the country’s reconstruction.

“We are deeply shocked … because it is an attack against the [International Committee of the Red Cross] and that means, of course, a deliberate attack against our protective emblem and against our work,” chief spokeswoman Antonella Notari said yesterday in Geneva.

“We will have to analyze exactly what this means,” Miss Notari said. “We know there is a need for the ICRC. … [But] this makes things extremely difficult.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urged private organizations, contractors and the United Nations to stay in Iraq despite the dangers, arguing that the attacks seem designed to make life harder for ordinary Iraqis.

The relief organizations are needed, he said. “And if they are driven out, then the terrorists win,” Mr. Powell said in Washington.

In yesterday’s attack, an explosives-laden ambulance painted with the emblem of the Red Crescent Society — a Red Cross affiliate — slammed into barriers near the ICRC headquarters, killing 12 persons and wounding dozens more, most of them Iraqi pedestrians.

There are at least four dozen relief agencies operating in Iraq, and many of them said yesterday that they were reassessing whether the country has become too dangerous to continue deploying foreign staffers.

Many more — ranging from the United Nations to small, project-specific groups — have evacuated foreign staff or withdrawn completely in the weeks after the deadly August attack on the U.N. headquarters.

Most of these groups work at repairing vital infrastructure such as water, sewage and electrical plants, or rebuilding schools, hospitals and houses. Among the groups still represented are CARE, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children and a variety of religious organizations.

Few of these groups yesterday were interested in discussing their work, citing the instability in Iraq and fear of threats against their foreign staff.

“We are waiting to hear from our Iraq office before we comment. I don’t know what they are comfortable with me saying, for safety reasons,” said the press officer of one private relief organization. “We don’t want to call attention to them.”

But several groups conceded privately that yesterday’s attack, and the precarious security situation, would hasten an exodus of foreign aid workers.

“You’re not seeing anyone rush in right now,” said one U.N. official. “We are not, [and] I don’t think you’ll see too many others.”

Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French title, Medecins Sans Frontieres, indicated in a statement that it is considering withdrawing more of its medical staff.

“It is hard to gauge what the effects of this attack will be on the future of humanitarian assistance in Iraq,” the group said.

“MSF will scale down its current expatriate team of seven in Baghdad, who have set up clinics and support a hospital in the poorest part of the city, but hopes to continue its medical activities as much as is possible.”

The German government also said last night that it was considering withdrawing a four-member team of water-supply experts sent to Iraq last month.

Aid workers have been under attack since they began returning to Iraq in May and June.

Convoys of aid trucks have been hijacked, and workers have been shot, harassed, kidnapped or robbed. Some say that coalition soldiers are not protecting them, while soldiers have complained that humanitarian staffers refuse to work in dangerous areas.

In August, a flatbed truck with hundreds of pounds of explosives detonated at an unguarded corner near the United Nations’ Baghdad headquarters, killing 23 persons and injuring more than 150.

The United Nations has since consolidated its foreign staffers in Baghdad and reduced their number to less than two dozen, down from more than 450 at the time of the August bombing.

Yesterday’s attack was immediately condemned by the Bush administration, foreign governments and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who called it “a crime against humanity.”

The Red Cross, or its local affiliate, has been active in Iraq since 1980 and was one of the few foreign relief agencies to remain in Baghdad during the recent war. Among other things, the organization has been monitoring the coalition detention camps filled with Iraqis suspected of being criminals or security risks.

The organization has been relocating foreign staffers since a Sri Lankan driver was murdered in mid-July, and by yesterday had about two dozen staff in Iraq to oversee several hundred Iraqi employees. At its peak, the renowned, neutral Swiss organization had 100 foreigners in Iraq after the war.

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