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Iraq: a conflict that spares no one

11-04-2007 Press Briefing

At a press conference in Geneva on 11 April to launch a new report on the ever-worsening humanitarian crisis in Iraq, the ICRC's director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl, described the situation of Iraqi civilians as intolerable and called on all those with military and political influence on the ground to act now to ensure that the lives of ordinary Iraqis are spared and protected.

  ©AP Photo/Samir Mizban    
Displaced families living in destroyed barracks in Baghdad. 

  ©AP Photo/Hadi Mizban    
A woman grieves as she looks at her neighbour's damaged house at the scene of a suicide car bomb attack in Baghdad. 
  ©Reuters /Namir Noor Eldeen    
Employees of an Iraqi ministry receive treatment at Yarmouk hospital after they were wounded in a bomb attack in Baghdad.    
  ©Reuters/Namir Noor-Eldeen    
A displaced family waits for distribution of humanitarian aid by the Iraqi Red Crescent at a camp for displaced people in Baghdad. 

Mr Krähenbühl said that the driving element behind the decision to issue the report lay in the extraordinary challenge presented by the Iraqi context today – the appalling hardship and suffering that is endured on a daily basis by the people of Iraq, particularly in the central and southern parts of the country. The humanitarian situation is steadily worsening, affecting indirectly or directly all Iraqis today.

He emphasized the immense difficulty for all humanitarian actors to operate in Iraq due to the high-risk environment and the resulting challenges to gain access to those most in need.

Mr Krähenbühl raised the dilemma of speaking about the situation in Iraq in a manner that somehow reflects the depth of suffering that Iraqis are confronted with today.

" The continuous reports and endless daily statistics that we are exposed to: 50 killed in a marketplace, another hundred killed and wounded in a car bomb attack and dozens more in a series of sectarian reprisal attacks. I certainly find these numbers unbearable but what is even more so is the anonymity, the fact that behind the numbers so many destinies remain unknown, and the despair of relatives so difficult to hear. "

Mr Krähenbühl referred to the testimonies in the report as forcing us to see the multiple individual tragedies and traumas behind the figures.

" They explain what it actually means when the ICRC says that the conflict in Iraq is inflicting immense suffering on the entire population; what it means when we say that civilians bear the brunt of the relentless violence, the extremely poor security conditions that are disrupting the lives and livelihoods of millions of ordinary Iraqis; what it means when we speak about dozens of people killed and wounded every day, and what it really means when we talk about the grave failure to respect and protect the lives and dignity of civilians. "

Mr Krähenbühl went on to recount the story of a colleague who had recently talked with several Iraqi women, and had asked them what the matter of greatest concern to them was, what their greatest need was. " After a long period of silence, the reply came:'The most important thing that anyone could do for us would be to help collect the bodies that lie in the streets in front of our homes every morning, the ones no one dares to touch, these images that are unbearable for us to have to expose our children to everyday as we try to bring them to school.'I think this story is reflective of the daily reality of many, many people in Iraq, " he concluded.

He recalled the tragedy of ICRC expatriate and Iraqi colleagues killed in Iraq in 2003 and 2005 and emphasized that the decision to maintain operations in Iraq was driven by the conviction that the importance of the needs justified taking very significant risks. " None of us considers taking these risks a normal state of affairs and there is immense respect for our colleagues who implement these activities on the ground, " he added.

Mr Krähenbühl stressed the ICRC's wish to be clear about the difficulties, security constraints and access limitations that exist in Iraq. " There is no pretending that we are anywhere near to covering the multiple needs of the Iraqi population. In fact, covering those needs is beyond what humanitarian agencies would be able to address in any case. "

Nonetheless, the ICRC is increasing its activities in the beleaguered country. It currently has 415 staff, including 57 expatriates, based in Iraq and Jordan and is progressively e xpanding its presence, including opening new offices. The Iraqi Red Crescent for its part currently has 18 branches, 1,500 staff and 9,000 volunteers spread throughout the country.

Mr Krähenbühl went on to summarize the ICRC's activities (included in the report) in response to the five primary issues of concern in Iraq: internal displacement, medical care under threat, water and sanitation, visiting detainees and missing persons.

The Iraqi Red Crescent estimates that 106,000 families, which amounts to approximately 600,000 people, have been displaced inside Iraq since February 2006, when the upsurge in sectarian violence began after a Shiite shrine was bombed. The organization further estimates that two-thirds of the displaced are women and children, often living in female-headed households. The displaced are for the most part welcomed by other residents who generously share their meagre resources. The ICRC distributes emergency aid to 60,000 people every month in Iraq, primarily to the worst-affected displaced persons, while also focusing on the needs of resident populations.

Hospitals and other key health services are desperately short of staff as medical professionals flee the country in large numbers following instances of murder and abduction of their colleagues. According to the Iraqi Ministry of Health, more than half of Iraq's doctors are said to have left the country. There are frequent reports of armed men storming hospitals and forcing doctors to give their companions priority treatment, usually at the expense of others in more urgent need.

The ICRC is providing medicines and surgical supplies sufficient to treat and operate up to 3,000 war-wounded victims at various health facilities, including five hospitals in Baghdad and centres in various other governorates around the country.

In closing, Pierre Krähenbühl pointed out that the budget for o perations in Iraq for 2007 amounts to CHF 56.3 million, making it the ICRC's third-largest operation worldwide.

" What the report that we are presenting today shows is that the situation of Iraqi civilians today is intolerable and there is a grave failure to respect their lives and dignity, " Mr Krähenbühl concluded. " Their situation and security must be made a matter of absolute priority and the ICRC appeals for better respect of IHL and to those with military and political influence on the ground to act now to ensure that the lives of ordinary Iraqis are spared and protected. "

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