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Spotlight: decades of helping in Iraq

14-02-2003 Operational Update

The ICRC’s media relations officer in Baghdad, Roland Huguenin, came to know Iraq well during the 1990s. As tensions grow in anticipation of another war, he looks back over the organization’s long involvement in the country.

The Republic of Iraq ratified the Geneva Conventions of 1949 on 12 February 1956. In doing so, the authorities explicitly recognized the mandate and specific role of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The first occasion in which this was put into practice was in October 1969, when the ICRC opened a delegation in Baghdad to help re-establish links between families split on both sides of the international border with Iran, along the Chatt-el-Arab waterway. By May 1970 the mission was completed and the ICRC delegates left Iraq.

In March 1975, the ICRC helped repatriate a number of Kurdish people from Iran to Iraq.

At the outbreak of hostilities between Iraq and Iran, the ICRC, in diplomatic notes dated 23 September 1980, reminded both countries’ authorities of their obligations under the Geneva Conventions. It also offered its services as a neutral intermediary to help ensure the Conventions were respected – standard ICRC procedure when a conflict breaks out.

Throughout eight bitter years of conflict, the ICRC was able to carry out visits to Iranian prisoners of war in a fairly regular and repeated manner. The routine presence of ICRC delegates in POW camps enabled the ICRC to monitor the conditions of internment and to allow the prisoners to communicate with their families in Iran through Red Cross messages.

In all:

  •  13 million  Red Cross Messages were exchanged between Iraqi and Irani an prisoners of war and their families.

  •  95'000  prisoners of war from both sides were repatriated under the auspices of the ICRC. (Bilateral discussions between Iraq and Iran are still ongoing to resolve the issue of thousands of people still unaccounted for.)

On 17 January 1991 one of the largest military campaigns since World War II began; an international coalition of some 17 countries confronted Iraq over the liberation of Kuwait. The ICRC was the only international humanitarian organization to remain in Iraq throughout the Gulf War.

 Awareness of the law  

For the ICRC and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement the conflict was one of the greatest challenges ever faced: rarely had it been necessary to set up such a large-scale operation, under such difficult conditions and in such a short time.

Providing relief for the civilian population and attending to the needs of the victims of the conflict went hand-in-hand with efforts to heighten awareness among the belligerents – and also in the international community and in the media – of the obligation to comply with international humanitarian law.

Aid was distributed with the help of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society to hospitals and orphanages but it soon became obvious that the top priority was to maintain a supply of safe water, as the power stations had been bombed and there was no longer enough fuel to keep the water pumps going. Mobile water purification units were set up in Baghdad while ICRC engineers worked to repair existing installations.

 Logistical means  

Considerable logistical mean s were needed to transport some 27,000 tonnes of goods contributed by donors and to organize its distribution to civilians in all parts of the country as well as to refugees in neighbouring countries.

  ICRC operations in 1991 cost around 180 million Swiss francs; hundreds of staff were mobilized 

The cost of the emergency operation for 1991 came to 91.7 million Swiss francs in cash and a similar amount in goods and services. In addition to the 80 ICRC delegates normally based in the Middle East, over 350 additional expatriates were working side by side with hundreds of national staff members when activities reached their peak in the region.

At the end of the Gulf War repatriations enabled over 70,000 prisoners of war to return home and a Tripartite Commission on Missing Persons was set up under the auspices of the ICRC to deal with the question of persons unaccounted for.

 No-fly zones  

In the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf war, the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions still provide the legal basis for the ICRC's work on behalf of prisoners of war and the civilian population. The no-fly zones over the north and south of Iraq, and the ongoing air strikes against objectives in these zones, mean that the provisions of the Geneva Conventions apply, imposing obligations on those countries involved.

Since 1991 international trade sanctions have had grave consequences for the Iraqi economy and have led to an overall deterioration of the basic infrastructure of the country. The " Oil for Food " programme introduced by UN Resolution 986 i n 1995 has not prevented the collapse of the health system and of other essential infrastructure such as the water supply, which together pose one of the gravest threats to the health and well being of the civilian population.

While the ICRC has done everything possible to repair the damage and restore at least basic services, it is conscious that aid alone is not enough to put the country to rights.