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Iraq: press briefing 20 March 2003 by ICRC Director of Operations

20-03-2003 Press Briefing by Pierre Krähenbühl

Director of Operations Pierre Krähenbühl details ICRC assistance and protection programs related to the unfolding events in Iraq, and reminds the warring parties of the absolute respect for international humanitarian law which they are obliged to show.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming to this press briefing. Obviously the reason for our being here this afternoon is to discuss the events unfolding in Iraq and the region.

I believe that all of us working in the humanitarian field feel deep concern about what is happening and about the potential consequences, for the civilian population throughout the region, of the way in which the conflict is conducted. That is one reason why this morning Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), launched an appeal urging the belligerents involved in the Iraqi conflict to comply with the basic provisions and principles of international humanitarian law. We handed over a memorandum reminding the various belligerent parties – Iraq, the United Kingdom and the United States – of their obligations last week.

This afternoon, what we really want to do is to run through some of the key features of our operational preparations for this conflict and to explain where we stand at the present time. The ICRC has a team on the ground; indeed we were determined to maintain an operational presence in Iraq as the conflict broke out and escalated. Perhaps I should say a word on why that is so. One of the initial decisions we had to make was whether we would be willing to take the risk of keeping staff on the spot. We feel very strongly that the real purpose, the fundamental purpose, of humanitarian action in situations of armed conflict is precisely to be there when the crisis is at its height, not to be present before and after. I think the real value of our involvement in this type of activity – providing support and protection for people affected by armed conflic t – lies in our presence when hostilities are going on. We currently have 10 expatriate staff inside Iraq (six in Baghdad and four in the northern regions), plus about 110 national Iraqi personnel. We are, of course, also working very closely with our colleagues of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.

For an operation of this nature we naturally also need considerable resources, and that is why we are today launching an appeal for a total of 108 million Swiss francs for the Iraq conflict. This amount is in addition to the 22 million Swiss francs requested in December of last year for our regular operations in Iraq in 2003. The additional amount of 108 million is intended to cover the particular situation now prevailing for a period of four months. That is our plan at present; I shall come back to some of the details in a moment.

My colleague Abbas Gullet from the International Federation will be giving you an overview of the regional implications and the involvement of the Federation in neighbouring countries. I feel it is very important to underline that we have come to a clear agreement with the Federation, in accordance with the rules that govern the activities of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, to the effect that the ICRC has the status of lead agency inside Iraq and coordinates the operations conducted by the Movement in that context, while the Federation has the status of lead agency in neighbouring countries that are not affected by the ongoing armed conflict.

As I said earlier, now we can look at a few details relating to our key areas of concern and outline what we intend to do. What we had already done before the conflict started was to make sure we were in a position to meet some critical needs that we anticipated would arise in the first phase of hostilities and, to that end, to put in place the human and material resources required to ensure a flexible and rapid response on the ground. Over th e past few months we have been working to build up stocks of material supplies inside Iraq, and have also set up a series of logistic bases and centres outside Iraq that we felt could help us to guarantee that flexible response. Just to take an example, if in the days and weeks ahead our colleagues in Baghdad find it difficult to travel to areas outside the capital, we would have the means to bring in additional material from neighbouring countries, thanks to the delegates, logistic bases and supplies already in place in countries like Kuwait, Jordan, Iran and Syria.

Now I should like to mention some key figures. One of the concerns in the early stages of a conflict of this nature is obviously the question of the numbers of war-wounded and of people otherwise affected by the hostilities. To date we have prepositioned enough medical supplies to treat a total of 7,000 war-wounded in the Iraqi context, and we have sufficient additional medical material to cover the basic health needs of up to 180,000 people.

Another area of concern is the matter of IDPs, internally displaced persons. Here I think it is important to make a distinction between people displaced within the country, who are of concern primarily to the ICRC, and people who may cross the international border and become refugees. The latter would be of concern, within the context of the Movement, primarily to our colleagues at the International Federation, and of course to UNHCR.

The ICRC has stockpiled sufficient material in the country to meet the needs of 150,000 displaced persons. I should make it clear that this is not because we expect that to be the total number of people displaced. We obviously have no idea how many people may become displaced or decide to move today or tomorrow. But this is the capacity we must have so as to be able to respond in a first phase. We have the means to increase that capacity rapidly to cover up to half a million people if requir ed.

We know, on the basis of our experience in conflict zones in general but in Iraq in particular, especially in 1991, that one area where war causes rapid disruption is that of water supply networks and sewage evacuation systems. The result, particularly in urban centres, is a breakdown in water supplies for civilians. Over the years we have developed special expertise in this field, and have now put in place enough material to be able to restore water supplies quickly for up to 3 million people if necessary.

Another challenge that we might very well be faced with quite soon is the whole question of arrested and captured persons and prisoners of war. In the appeal that he launched this morning, President Kellenberger reminded the parties to the conflict of their obligations, in the event of capture, to treat prisoners of war in accordance with the provisions of international humanitarian law, which requires that they be accorded proper respect. At this point the question for us is how we should organize our work if large numbers of people were to be captured or detained. If the numbers are comparable with those we have known in the past and in other situations, we have additional teams of delegates that can rapidly be sent to register the people detained and thereby also provide them with a measure of protection, which is one of our traditional activities.

Those are some of our key priorities. Now I would like to tell you that we have been in contact, not only this morning but on several occasions during the day, with our colleagues in Baghdad. At this stage, the environment in which they are working appears to be relatively stable. As regards the security situation, they were certainly able to move about during the morning. They have been in touch with some of their traditional contacts, including those at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They have distributed medical supplies to one medical facility, the Alkindi hospital , during the day. So those activities are under way, and their work is going on. There have been also reports from our colleagues in the north, who have observed some early displacements of a few families. Details can be provided in that regard by my colleagues at the back of the room, who are dealing with this matter on a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour basis. Our colleagues in the north have already taken steps to respond to needs of internally displaced persons.

I think that rounds off this initial outline of the situation that we can offer you at this point. As I said, Abbas Gullet will give you an overview of the Federation's concerns and we shall then open the floor for questions.