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Update 01 on ICRC activities in Iraq

12-04-2000 Operational Update

In Iraq the ICRC focuses on the humanitarian issues resulting from two international conflicts - the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf war - now aggravated by ten years of international trade sanctions.

The following noteworthy developments are outlined in this document:

  • another 1,999 prisoners of war (POWs) from the Iran-Iraq war repatriated this week

  • persons unaccounted for since the Gulf war: clarification of the respective mandates of the ICRC and the UN

  • ICRC steps up rehabilitation of health and sanitation facilities to alleviate the plight of the Iraqi population resulting from the sanctions.

 I. 1,999 POWs from the Iran-Iraq war repatriated this week  


Between 8 and 11 April, 1,999 Iraqi POWs held in Iran were repatriated under the auspices of the ICRC. The four-day operation took place at the Mundharieh/Khosravi checkpoint on the border between Iran and Iraq, and was supervised by a team of 13 ICRC staff. Since the beginning of February, ICRC delegates registered and held private interviews with each of the prisoners to ensure that they were going home of their own free will. This was the first such release operation in 2000.

In February and March, the ICRC Head of Operations for the Middle East and North Afr ica had conducted successive missions to Baghdad and Tehran, where he had high-level meetings on the issue of the remaining POWs from the Iran-Iraq conflict, in particular the repatriation of those wishing to return home. In the meantime, ICRC delegates pursued their interviews with Iraqi POWs who were either still interned or had been released in Iran at the end of the conflict.

This was the fifth release operation carried out in the framework of an ongoing process which started in April 1998, when 5,584 Iraqi POWs, 3 Iranian POWs and 316 Iranian nationals - who had been detained in Iraq for reasons not related to the conflict - were returned to their respective countries. Since then, the ICRC continued its efforts to bring about the repatriation of all remaining POWs wishing to return home. In 1999, the ICRC supervised the repatriation of 715 Iraqi POWs and 53 Iranian detainees.

Since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq conflict in 1980, the ICRC has helped repatriate more than 97,000 prisoners of war held by both sides.

 II. Persons unaccounted for since the Gulf war: mandate and roles of ICRC and UN respectively  

In the absence of meetings of the Tripartite Commission since January 1999, the ICRC holds regular consultations with the various parties to discuss the issue of persons unaccounted for. Meanwhile, and in a separate approach, the UN has appointed a high-level coordinator to report to the Secretary General and the Security Council on progress made on the matter. In accordance with its specific mandate, the ICRC will pursue the process directly with the former parties to the conflict but not assist in the UN reporting process.

 Tripartite Commission  

Following Iraq's decision no longer to participate in the Tripartite Commission meetings as long as the United States, the United Kingdom and France were present, the ICRC has organized regular consultation meetings in Geneva at the request of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Three such meetings took place in 1999 and one was organized on 8 February 2000 to explore ways to make progress on the issue of the persons still unaccounted for nine years after the end of the second Gulf war. The next consultation meeting is planned for 21 June 2000. In the meantime, bilateral discussions with all parties will continue.

In the current stalemate, the ICRC has in the past weeks focused on organizing a joint Iraqi-Saudi operation to retrieve the mortal remains presumed to belong to a Saudi pilot whose plane crashed over Iraq during the Gulf war.

The Tripartite Commission, bringing together Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United States, the United Kingdom and France, was set up in April 1991 after the global repatriation of POWs and civilian internees, with a view to ascertaining the fate of missing military personnel and civilians on the basis of lists submitted by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. In 1994, the Tripartite Commission created the Technical Sub-Committee in order to expedite the search for all persons for whom inquiries had been opened, to facilitate the exchange of information, to implement any follow-up measures relating to individual inquiry files and to foster a climate of confidence. Both bodies met under ICRC chairmanship until the end of 1998. Cases of persons unaccounted for which were submitted after 31 July 1996 are processed outside the framework of the Tripartite Commission.

 New UN coordinator appointed   

On the UN side, the Security Council adopted resolution 1284 on 17 December 1999 in which it " requests the Secretary General to report to the Security Council every four months on compliance by Iraq with its obligations regarding the repatriation or return of all Kuwaiti and third country nationals or their remains ... and to appoint a high-level coordinator for these issues " .

Further to his appointment as coordinator, Ambassador Yuli Vorontsov started a round of consultations with the various players involved in this file. He particularly requested to visit ICRC headquarters, where he met with the ICRC Vice-President and the Head of Operations for the Middle East and North Africa on 4 April.

This meeting allowed the UN coordinator to express his general views on the issue of persons unaccounted for. The ICRC Vice-President particularly stressed the fact that, in line with the ICRC's principle of independence and the confidentiality agreed on by the parties at the beginning of the process, the organization would not assist in the UN coordinator's reporting to the Secretary General and the Security Council on the issue. While respecting the UN mandate and efforts related thereto, the ICRC remains indeed convinced that its added value stems from its independence and its confidentiality, as conditions for maintaining an open dialogue with all parties and for pursuing its efforts, on the basis of the mandate given by the Geneva Conventions, and its role as a neutral intermediary between the parties.

 III. Humanitarian response to the embargo  

The ICRC has been deeply concerned to observe the consequences in humanitarian terms of the slow but steady deterioration of living conditions in Iraq. While th e " oil-for-food " programme, introduced by UN Security Council resolution 986 in 1995, has had a positive impact, with increased availability of food and medicines, it has not halted the steady deterioration of the public health system and the breakdown of water and sanitation networks.

In 1999 the ICRC extended its projects in Iraq in two vital sectors: health, and water and sanitation (see Emergency Appeals 2000, pp 214-217, and the ICRC report Iraq: A Decade of Sanctions, published in December 1999).

The ICRC remains however convinced that exemptions to the sanctions and humanitarian aid, although essential in order to address urgent and specific needs, can be considered only as partial, stopgap measures, and can be no substitute for a country's entire economy.

 1. ICRC water and sanitation projects  

The ICRC has observed the following negative impact on infrastructure:

  • water-supply and sewage systems are breaking down owing to the lack of maintenance and spare parts

  • there is a shortage of trained staff 

  • low water levels in rivers have brought some purification plants to a standstill, as well as resulting in a high concentration of pollutants in the water.

The ICRC remains very concerned about the effects of extremely low water levels in Iraq's rivers and reservoirs and the possible consequences for the coming dry season, and is monitoring the situation closely. Although rainfall returned to almost normal levels during the 1999/2000 rainy season, this was not nearly enough to make up for the drought over the past three years.

  • So far this year, the ICRC has completed five water-supply projects, mainly related to the drought, for the benefit of a total of 1.95 million people. One of the most spectacular of these was the emergency project, begun last December, on the water-treatment plant which supplies the town of Najaf, whose population of 400,000 swells to as much as 2 million at certain times of the year owing to the influx of Shiite pilgrims. The repositioning of eight huge suction pipelines and the extension of the intake structure have enabled this plant to cope with lower water levels in the Euphrates, and thus to work at full capacity once again. This also entails a water saving of 35m3/second which can instead be used for irrigation purposes. Another major project planned is the construction of a new water-treatment plant in the town of Amara, for the benefit of some 450,000 people.

  • A major threat to the health of the west-bank area of Baghdad was averted by the completion of the emergency rehabilitation of Al-Dora sewage-lifting station in Baghdad, which drains the waste waters of some 2.5 million people. Another four emergency projects dealing with both drought and wastewater disposal problems are currently under way.

  • The electricity situation in Iraq is still precarious, above all owing to the low availability of hydroelectric power. Energy supply is a critical issue for water supply and sewage evacuation in a flat country like Iraq, where raw surface water has to be treated, pumped and drained. So far in 2000, the ICRC has repaired 8 generators (amounting to a total back-up capacity of 5,600 kVA), thus enabling water and sewage plants to increase production considerably.

  • One storm-water pumping station, one sewage and five water stations and one water- supply pipeline covering the needs of 2.2 million people have undergone major repairs. In addition, teams of ICRC technicians carried out maintenance work on four other water and sewage stations.

  • In north ern Iraq, the ICRC began work on a pipeline supplying water to 40,000 people and two hospitals in the town of Dohuk at the end of March. The pipeline, which at present crosses a polluted river, will be moved to a bridge currently under construction.

  • A motor of 635 kW and a generator of 1,250 kVA used by the Aqra Water Board, and in need of repairs, were transported to Baghdad for a complete overhauling. The system is used to provide drinking water to an estimated 100,000 people.

 2. ICRC projects to help the wounded and sick  

The ICRC has observed the following impact on infrastructure :

  • an increasing number of hospitals and dispensaries are in a state of disrepair and unable to function normally, the state of roofs, cooling systems and water-supply and sewage networks giving particular cause for concern

  • medical staff have no way of following recent developments in their field.

By the beginning of 2000, the ICRC was renovating six major hospitals in Iraq: one in Basra, two in Baghdad, one in Mosul, one in Arbil and one in Sulaymaniyah. Given the extent of the needs, and the fact that infrastructure problems were far greater then the various evaluations had indicated, the ICRC has decided to give priority to seven hospitals, as opposed to the eleven originally planned.

  • Especially good progress has been made on renovating six-floor Basra Teaching Hospital (500 beds). The roof and basement had been repaired by the end of 1999, and the elevators, which had not been working, have now also been fixed and are safe to use. Detailed studies have been comp leted to launch the second phase of the work, which includes rehabilitation of the operating theatres and the toilet shafts and repairs to the air-cooling system and to one of the hot-water boilers.

  • Al-Batool Mother and Child Hospital (178 beds) in Mosul has been completely emptied and comprehensive renovation work has started in the main building. Construction of a new emergency wing has also begun, with a view to improving the medical service of the hospital.

  • Rehabilitation work has started on five pavilions of Al-Karama General Hospital (450 beds) in Baghdad, along with comprehensive repair work on the water and sewage system.

  • The ICRC has begun a psychiatry programme at Al-Rashad Hospital (1,170 beds) for the chronically mentally ill in Baghdad. An assessment is under way with a view to repairing the buildings and infrastructure and identifying priority needs in cooperation with the hospital authorities. The project is to include appraisal of the medical knowledge of the staff and the psychiatry-drugs situation as well as to develop several occupational therapy activities. It could be run by a National Society as a delegated project.

  • Since autumn 1999 the ICRC has provided the Central Library of the Ministry of Health with 29 international medical journals. As part of this programme, the ICRC in March delivered a photocopy machine and a computer to the Central Library in order to facilitate its work in supporting medical personnel in their research studies. It also supplied 11 medical reference books to give doctors and students access to recent medical information.

  • The ICRC is implementing a pilot project in primary health care in Diyala governorate, 80 km north of Baghdad. The aim is to improve the general health status of the community by offering preventive and curative care. The project will be carried out in close cooperation with the Ministry of Health through the involvement of local medical authorities. Priority wi ll be given to repairing the buildings and to on-the-job training by expatriate ICRC staff.

 IV. Other ICRC activities in Iraq  

In addition to the programmes described above, the ICRC visits detainees from countries that have no diplomatic relations with Iraq in order to monitor their treatment and conditions of detention, and assists the Iraqi Red Crescent in maintaining and restoring links between separated family members in the region. In northern Iraq, the ICRC visits detainees held for security reasons by the main parties involved in internal violence.

The ICRC also provides assistance for the war-disabled via the six ICRC-supported prosthetic/orthotic centres throughout the country (the centre in Arbil is run by the Norwegian Red Cross as a delegated project). In Iraq, 3,000 patients receive an ICRC prosthesis per year. Of these, over 50% are mine victims.

Considering the ICRC's huge budget for Iraq, and the fact that no money has been received so far this year for its programmes there, the ICRC urges donors to forward cash contributions to this operation as soon as possible and thanks donors for their support.

Some of the projects, such as the psychiatry programme at Al-Rashad Hospital or some water projects, could be run as a delegated project by a National Society, as a contribution to ICRC budgets for 2000.

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