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Iraq: the ICRC carries on scaled back activities

20-07-2005 Article, Al Hayat, 17 July 2005

Following deliberate attacks on its personnel, the ICRC has been forced to reduce its presence in Iraq. It continues, however, to visit those held in connection with the conflict and, in collaboration with the Iraqi Red Crescent, it provides emergency assistance to those caught up in the violence.

 This interview with the ICRC's delegate-general for the Middle East and North Africa, Balthasar Staehlin, was first published in the newspaper, Al-Hayat on July 17 and is published here with the newspaper's kind permission.  

 Can you explain the type of activities the ICRC is carrying out in Iraq at the moment?  

The ICRC is concentrating on its visits to detainees. In the central parts of the country visits are carried out to detention places under the control of the American forces and in the North to those under the control of the Kurdish Regional Authorities: Their purpose is to ensure that the conditions of detention and treatment correspond to applicable standards and to maintain the links between prisoners and their families.

In addition, the ICRC continues to provide medical emergency assistance in the event of mass-casualty incidents. In coordination with the Iraqi health authorities, medical and surgical supplies are made available for distribution to hospitals and other health facilities. Moreover, the ICRC supports seven centres caring for the physically disabled in Baghdad, Hilla, Mosul, Najaf, Basrah and soon Tikrit which produce artificial limbs and other orthopaedic appliances. The ICRC is still managing the orthopaedic centre in Erbil.

Furthermore, the ICRC has completed four large-scale rehabilitation hospital projects (Basra, Baghdad, Diyala and Salah Eddine). A water network extension has also been completed in Baghdad. The rehabilitation of a primary health care centre in Zergele in northern Iraq is underwa y.

 The ICRC has reduced the level of its activities in Iraq recently. What are the reasons for this and what are the consequences for Iraqis?  

It is true that we would like to have a far more substantial operation in Iraq – an operation similar to that in the occupied Palestinian territories where we are present in almost every town. Regrettably, the ICRC, despite its purely non-political and humanitarian character, has suffered deliberate attacks against its offices and staff. This meant that while we decided not to withdraw from Iraq, we had to adopt a new way of working and reduce the services we provide to the population. This is very frustrating for us and we continuously look for ways to establish a dialogue with all parties to the conflict to convince them of our humanitarian work so that we may be able to increase this work in the future.

One of the very difficult consequences of this situation is that we no longer have offices open to the public in the central and southern parts of Iraq. So it is quite difficult for people looking for help or family messages to actually reach the ICRC. I know that some manage to get to the offices situated in the North, others to offices situated in neighbouring countries but it's a difficult situation. However, given that the ICRC can not accept military protection, it had to take the decision to close its offices to the public in the central and southern parts of Iraq.


 How did you take the decision to reduce the presence of your expatriate staff?  


It was a decision taken jointly by the delegation in Iraq and the people in charge at headquarters. It is directly linked to deliberate attacks faced by the ICRC against its national and international employees and its structures. It was - on various occasions - always a very difficult decision to take – to remain operational in spite of these attacks. But we have decided to strive to keep certain services open for the Iraqi population, and it's true that today much of our focus is on those in detention. It is obvious that if the ICRC was respected, it would be able to deliver far more efficient services to the population. This is the dilemma today.


 There is information that you are in contact with Baathists inside and outside Iraq in order to facilitate your mission and to explain it. Do you think this move serves the cause of your neutrality?  


It is true that we want to have contact with all parties to the violence in Iraq, even if I don't want to go into details about whom we are in contact with. The parties to the conflict have to accept that the ICRC, as a neutral organization, must talk to everyone. This means that armed groups have to accept that we talk with the authorities and that the authorities have to accept that we talk to armed groups. We have always been very transparent with this goal and we need this dialogue. It is aimed at impressing upon all parties the need to distinguish between combatants and civilians and to treat civilians with respect. It is also necessary if we are to explain our way of working to obtain the necessary guarantees to fulfil our mandate on behalf of those touched by conflict.

The ICRC does not use military escorts or military protection from any of the factions, groups or authorities. This is precisely what would jeopardise our neutrality and the perception pe ople have of this neutrality. Having contacts with all actors to a conflict is a necessity to be accepted by all in order to carry out our humanitarian work.


 How many times has the ICRC been targeted?  


Since the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003 we have lost five ICRC staff members. I would make a distinction between the very tragic death of one of our colleagues killed in crossfire when the bombs were falling on Baghdad in early 2003 and later deliberate attacks. In July 2003 one of our employees was killed in a drive-by shooting near Hilla. This was followed by a car bomb attack against our Baghdad delegation October 2003, in which two staff members were killed along with ten other Iraqis. The latest loss was of an employee killed near Abu Ghraib in January 2005.


 How do you qualify the level of cooperation between the ICRC and the American and British forces in Iraq?  

The US and the UK have granted the ICRC access to detention places in Iraq. Unfortunately, the volatile security situation in Iraq prevents us from visiting all places of detention.

 Is there any improvement of the situation in places of detention? What are the major problems with regard to prisons in Iraq?  

In any country, the ICRC looks at three aspects when visiting prisons: the material conditions of detention, the treatment of prisoners, and the overall legal framework of detention. Our findings, positive or negative, are part of a confidential dialogue w ith the authorities. We do not publicly note any improvements or deterioration in conditions because we believe from long experience that bilateral dialogue yields better results.

 What services are you providing for Iraqi prisoners and what are the main problems they face?  

We strive to make regular visits to the main detention places under the authority of the Americans to impress upon them the requirement for good conditions and treatment. The visits also provide prisoners with the opportunity of talking freely to an ICRC delegate about his or her problems. The ICRC also tries to ensure that the connection between prisoners and their families is maintained.

We also are about to start a family visit programme for detainees held in Bucca camp in the extreme South of the country. Families often live very far away and it is very expensive for them to see their relatives. We want to facilitate these visits to enable closer contact between the families and the prisoners where possible. We also forward family parcels to prisoners, and we give certificates of detention to those being released. The ICRC is also involved in the repatriation of released nationals of other countries.

 What are the numbers and nationalities of non-Iraqi prisoners?  

We do come across prisoners from other states. Between 2003 and 2005, we visited 1,180 non-Iraqi nationals. There are prisoners from a variety of countries, mainly Egyptians, Saudi-Arabians, Jordanians, Sudanese and Iranians.

The re-establishment of family links is particularly important for those coming from other countries. Upon their release, we also seek to see them and to ensure that they are being repatriated of their own free will. We also give logistical support to those bein g repatriated, including those needing medical care during transport.