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Iraq: ICRC delivering more aid where it is needed most

08-11-2011 Interview

While the security situation in Iraq has slowly but steadily improved, there are many humanitarian needs that still have to be met. The ICRC has been improving its ability to do so. Magne Barth, the outgoing head of the ICRC delegation in Iraq, explains.

What is the situation in Iraq today and what are the ICRC's priorities?

Iraq still faces a lot of challenges. The level of violence linked to the conflict is slowly decreasing, but its cost remains high in terms of civilian casualties. Central Iraq and Baghdad, especially, remain volatile, unpredictable and often dangerous due to acts of violence that still claim the lives of tens of persons every month. Meanwhile, the political process is still facing a lot of obstacles.

The ICRC is expanding its humanitarian activities cautiously but deliberately. Our priority at the ICRC is to remain focussed on the areas and people most affected by the conflict and other violence. This means that we have to further expand our humanitarian work in the disputed territories and in the belt around Baghdad, giving priority to women heading households, physically disabled people, primary health in rural areas, displaced people and others who are not getting the services they are entitled to. The issue of missing persons continues to be one of our priorities.

Furthermore, in line with our mandate, our work in behalf of detainees will continue to focus on conditions of detention and issues of treatment. The ICRC has generally good access, and this is an area in which we can talk to the authorities on how to improve compliance with international standards where necessary.

As the country develops its great economic potential, the ICRC has scaled back and focused its assistance services. Nevertheless, we will continue to reach out to vulnerable groups and areas, and to provide the authorities with technical advice on how essential services can be improved. Increasingly, the ICRC is running medium- and long-term projects to help people make a living. The groups concerned include, for instance, women who are heading households, people with physical disabilities and displaced persons.

How do you see the situation on the Turkish and Iranian borders? What is the ICRC doing for the people affected?

The shelling in the border areas with Turkey and Iran has resulted in some civilian casualties, economic damage and displacement. The ICRC is monitoring the situation very carefully. We have good access to those areas and good contacts with the different parties. We are continually assessing the situation, and we provide support for the people displaced. The displacement is often of limited duration, as people go back home when the shelling is over. There is, however, an economic cost in terms of houses damaged and sources of income lost. The ICRC strives to meet some of the needs, in accordance with an established set of priorities. Towards winter the violence will probably subside.

As you leave Iraq after two years, what is your view of the ICRC's ability to get things done?

The ICRC is now operating with both international and national staff in Iraq after having significantly downsized our international presence after 2003, leaving a heavy operational burden on our Iraqi colleagues. Being present on the ground is necessary to be able to help efficiently. The context is complex and sometimes dangerous owing to the armed conflict and other violence. Nonetheless, it is still possible to carry out humanitarian activities there, and Iraq is the ICRC’s second largest operation.

The ICRC has a way of working through diverse contacts – to ensure acceptance – that might not be available to other humanitarian organizations and has worked in Iraq for more than 30 years without interruption. The organization is very well known in the country and we enjoy good contacts and dialogue with all authorities, from the central level down to the local. Over the last eight years, we have substantially expanded our network of contacts with the various parties, partly through our detention work. As a result, the ICRC is better known and accepted than before. However, as important as establishing contacts is, we don't lose sight of the fact that delivering aid and otherwise helping those in need remain the aim, and doing this efficiently also increases acceptance and understanding.

What is the main challenge the ICRC has had to face in Iraq in recent years?

The bombing of our offices in Baghdad in 2003 – almost eight years ago – is still a bitter memory. This incident, the first of its kind for the ICRC, came as a shock and became an obstacle to our work that we needed to overcome both individually and collectively. Obviously, the fact that we are still in Iraq and are now once more working at full strength demonstrates that the ICRC is committed to helping the people of the country. The first steps towards a full resumption of our activities were the most difficult, but once we had made them we got steadily better at dealing with a complex security environment.

What have the ICRC's main achievements been in the past two years?

A significant expansion of the ICRC's field presence generally, and particularly in the disputed areas, has to be considered a significant achievement. Our activities, launched from our offices within the Kurdish region, together with those of Kirkuk Khanaqin, Ramadi and Baghdad, have been stepped up in the areas hardest hit by violence. We have succeeded in bringing food and water to many people in areas where ordinary services are not functioning. Support to the health sector has focused on training rather than supplies and is now more strongly anchored in rural areas. We have also managed to visit detainees in more areas and more places of detention than before. We have consolidated and extended our field coverage in the south, working out of our offices in Basra and Najaf.

The ICRC has also expanded its operations in the Baghdad region, despite the fact that the security situation makes the working environment difficult.

Last but not least, the ICRC is continuing to develop its detainee-welfare work. During our visits to places of detention, we can feel that the detainees, their families and the authorities have more confidence in the ICRC. Dialogue with the various authorities is good and continues to develop. Sound, confident dialogue also enables the ICRC to raise difficult issues where necessary.

 


Photos

 

Magne Barth

Makhmour, Iraq. Primary health care centre supported by the ICRC. 

Makhmour, Iraq. Primary health care centre supported by the ICRC.
© ICRC/Getty images / E. Ou / iq-e-01072

Basra, Iraq. Physical rehabilitation centre. 

Basra, Iraq. Physical rehabilitation centre.
© ICRC/Getty images / E. Ou / iq-e-01048

Amara, Iraq. ICRC explosive ordnance disposal staff mark and cover an unexploded device with sandbags. Landmines, unexploded ordnance and other lethal debris of war are still a serious threat in Iraq. 

Amara, Iraq. ICRC explosive ordnance disposal staff mark and cover an unexploded device with sandbags. Landmines, unexploded ordnance and other lethal debris of war are still a serious threat in Iraq.
© ICRC/Getty images / E. Ou / iq-e-01039

Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq. Residents fill containers with clean drinking water provided by an ICRC project. 

Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq. Residents fill containers with clean drinking water provided by an ICRC project.
© ICRC/Getty images / E. Ou / iq-e-01002

Kirkuk, Iraq. In 2001, this woman stepped on a landmine and lost a leg. She is feeding a cow that was donated to her by the ICRC. 

Kirkuk, Iraq. In 2001, this woman stepped on a landmine and lost a leg. She is feeding a cow that was donated to her by the ICRC.
© ICRC/Getty images / E. Ou / iq-e-01058

Basra, Iraq. Graves of unidentified casualties of war. 

Basra, Iraq. Graves of unidentified casualties of war.
© ICRC/Getty images / E. Ou / iq-e-01030