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Iraq: 20-25 March 2003

27-03-2003 Operational Update

The ICRC's work in Iraq from the outbreak of hostilities on 20 March up to 25 March: in Baghdad and Basra to provide medical aid to hospitals and ensure continued water supplies; assistance for the displaced in northern Iraq; helping those displaced to Jordan to contact their relatives; contact with the authorities on prisoners of war and respect for humanitarian law.


    ICRC presence    |      ICRC activities    |      Baghdad    |      Basra    |      Nothern Iraq    |      Other displaced persons    |      Prisoners of war    |      Ensuring respect of IHL  
ICRC presence 

Since the start of the US and UK air strikes over Baghdad on 20 March, the ICRC has remained present in the capital, with a team of 6 expatriates and 50 national staff. The sub-delegation in Basra in the south of the country has also stayed open, and is being run by national staff. In the north, a team of 4 expatriates is based in Arbil, while the offices in Sulaymaniyah, Dohuk and Diyana are staffed by national employees. Teams of additional delegates specialized in various fields (water and sanitation, medicine, logistics and protection) are working out of ICRC offices in Kuwait, Jordan, Syria and Iran.

ICRC activities 

Every day since the outbreak of the hostilities, the ICRC has been able to move around the town during the day to carry out its activities. These include visiting the main hospitals and key water treatment plants in order to assess the situation and identify any urgent needs. Movements have been more restricted over the past three days, because of the increased intensity of air raids during the daytime as well as overnight.

 Medical aid  

Over the past five days, the ICRC has carried out daily visits to Al-Yarmouk General Teaching Hospital and Al-Kindi General Hospital in Baghdad, the main surgical hospitals which have been receiving and treating war wounded. Other hospitals, including Al-Numan surgical hospital, Ibn Al-Nafis and Al-Ilwiyah maternity hospital, have also been visited and assisted.

It is stressed that the ICRC is focusing on providing care to war victims. It is not in a position to keep statistics on casualty numbers.

So far, the hospitals seem to be coping with the situation. Surgeons from other hospitals have reinforced their colleagues in the main hospitals receiving war wounded. Since 23 March, the Iraqi Red Crescent has set up 14 first-aid posts around the capital, with volunteers present around the clock.

The ICRC has considerable stocks of surgical materials in Baghdad for the treatment of wounded. Warehouse staff ensures that the materials are ready for immediate delivery to hospitals that may need them.

Over the past five days, the ICRC has delivered emergency assistance to the hospitals visited. This included surgical kits, suture material kits, dressing material, surgical instruments, anaesthesia drugs, body bags and blankets. S ome electromechanical work and other emergency repair and maintenance jobs have also been carried out in the hospitals. For instance, at Al-Kindi, a back-up generator (150 KVA) has been installed for the operating theatre, and at Ibn Al-Nafis, repair work has been carried out on back-up generators.

It was noted that, in addition to war wounded, hospitals have been facing an increase in patients suffering from chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma or cardio-vascular problems, which have worsened as a result of the current situation (because, for example, of stress, the difficulty of obtaining certain drugs, or changes in diet). On March 22, for example, Al-Kindi received 100 patients with such complaints.

The ICRC has also been visiting social institutions, such as Baghdad psychiatric hospital (Al-Rashad), orphanages and street-children's centres, to carry out basic needs assessments and provide any necessary assistance (e.g. supply drinking water bags; make repairs to sanitary facilities and water storage systems; upgrade back-up generators). So far, no major needs have been registered as regards food, water or medical supplies. 

 Water supplies  


The ICRC is concerned about possible war damage to key water production facilities. Some plants and buildings belonging to the water board have already suffered minor damage as a result of indirect missile attacks. In Baghdad, the ICRC has been visiting key water treatment plants following air raids, to assess their state of functioning and carry out emergency work if necessary. This is done in consultation with the local authorities.

For example, on 25 March, after the functioning of an important treatment plant supplying south Baghdad was disrupted f ollowing a missile attack, the ICRC mobile workshop was immediately mobilized to reconnect the pumping units and power control systems. 60% of the plant's nominal production was restored in this way. Extra water supply was organized by ICRC water tankers fed from two ICRC water purification units pre-positioned nearby.

Measures have also been taken to distribute emergency water supplies to parts of Baghdad that are not connected, or only partially connected, to the water network. Efforts have moreover continued to prepare hospitals and health centres for possible cuts in the water or power water supply.

Thus, since 22 March: 

  • installation of a water purification unit at the large Medical City General Hospital (2,500 beds) has been completed

  • preparedness work has continued on various sites to secure the functioning of back-up generators and essential pump sets

  • health centres have been equipped with bladder tanks, back-up generators and other equipment to enable them to cope with a possible breakdown in the water or power supply

  • over 10,000 drinking water bags have been produced each day using the water line and stored for delivery to hospitals and health centres

  • around 10,000 one-litre drinking water bags have been provided each day to hospitals and health centres. These will serve as emergency drinking water supplies for patients and staff

  • around 200 cubic meters of drinking water have been trucked each day to around 40 distribution stations installed by the ICRC in poorly served or unserved areas of Baghdad (the northern Rusafa bank area)

  • the Iraqi Red Crescent Society has been supplied with water purification tablets.

Contacts with th e Iraqi water and sewerage authorities have indicated that there are, at present, no power or water supply problems in other areas of central and southern Iraq, and that operating conditions are normal at treatment plants in Amara, Samawa, Naseriya and Diwaniyah.


The situation in Basra has been very tense over the past days. Movement throughout the city has been difficult. The ICRC sub-delegation has remained open, working to counter the water-supply emergency threatening Basra's 1.5 million population.

 Medical aid  


The ICRC has visited hospitals in Basra receiving war-wounded, to assess the situation and their needs. Assistance has been provided, especially to Basra Teaching Hospital, where the ICRC has been working since 1999. As in Baghdad, the hospitals seem, at the time of writing, to be coping with the numbers of casualties and other patients.

 Water supplies  


The break-down of the power system in Basra as a result of the destruction of high-voltage cables during the hostilities has led to the disruption of water circulation since 21 March. By 22 March ICRC engineers and technicians, working jointly with Basra water board staff, had managed to connect several water treatment plants to the Shatt al-Arab river and to operate the back-up generators at these plants. As a result of these emergency measures, around 30% of the populat ion of Basra regained access to water. However, this was only a temporary and partial solution and the situation remained critical. The quality of the water from the Shatt al-Arab river is moreover not good enough for it to be used in the long term.

After contacts with both parties to the conflict, on 24 March the ICRC was able to cross the frontline and gain access to the main water pumping facility, Wafa'al-Qa'ed, north of Basra, with a view to evaluating the situation and, if possible, restarting operations. From early morning on 25 March, an ICRC team was on the spot and working on the plant, together with Iraqi engineers. The goal was to make any necessary repairs and, more specifically, to power the raw-water pumping units using six back-up generators. In this way, treatment plants would be resupplied in areas of Basra which had been without fresh drinking water for four days. By 26 March this had been achieved. Over the next few days, the ICRC will work to facilitate further access for local technicians who may be able to assess the damage to the high-power voltage lines and repair them.

The ICRC is concerned that further damage to power stations or high voltage transmission cables will continue to disrupt water-production facilities, which will have a direct impact on the overall health situation of the population. 

Northern Iraq 

It is estimated that several hundreds of thousands of people have left their homes and are currently displaced in northern Iraq. These include large numbers of people who, within the Kurdish-controlled northern governorates, have fled from the towns to the countryside, as well as smaller numbers of people who fled to the Kurdish-controlled area from other towns within Iraq (e.g. Mosul and Kirkuk). These latter number several thousand, and are among the most vulnerable. They are mostly to be found in Dohuk and Arbil.

According to the local authorities, in Sulaymaniyah governorate, some 22,350 IDPs have been registered around Penjwin, near the Iranian border. It seems that, at the moment, these IDPs are not seeking to cross the border into Iran, and that some have in fact begun returning home, at the same time as new people are arriving.

ICRC field teams and the local authorities estimate that overall needs among the displaced are not high, although a few thousand people are recognized as being vulnerable. Many of the displaced left their homes before the outbreak of hostilities, leaving the cities for the villages relatively well prepared. Most have found accommodation with relatives or in public buildings. ICRC teams carry out daily assessments of the living conditions of the displaced, and provide those in need with emergency assistance (blankets, cooking stoves, heaters, hygiene items, jerry cans etc). Over the past weekend, the ICRC assisted about 1,000 displaced people in this way.

On 22 March the ICRC delivered relief to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society in Kirkuk, to enable them to provide emergency assistance to vulnerable displaced persons (800 blankets, 100 hygiene kits, 100 heaters, 200 jerry cans, 100 kitchen sets, 100 cooking stoves and 100 buckets).


The ICRC has also provided non-food emergency supplies (kitchen utensils, heaters, buckets, blankets) to 130 detainees who were transferred by the local authorities from the Juvenile Detention Centre in Erbil to Diyana for their safety.

On Monday 24 March, the ICRC transported one wounded Australian journalist and the mortal remains of another Australian journalist fro m the Kurdish-controlled area to the Iranian border, where they were handed over to the Australian consul in Iran.

Other displaced persons 

So far, there have been only small-scale population movements towards the borders of Iraq. Third-country nationals heading for Jordan have been received there in a camp, run by the International Federation/Jordanian Red Crescent. The ICRC provides the use of satellite telephones so that those wishing to contact their relatives can let them know that they are safe. According to the Federation, 550 people of different nationalities have been through this camp so far (Egyptians, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Palestinians). As at 24 March, there were 160 people in the camp.

Prisoners of war 

Prisoners of war have been taken on both sides. These prisoners, captured within the framework of an international armed conflict, are covered by the Third Geneva Convention. Their well-being and safety are the responsibility of the detaining authorities. Under the provisions of the Third Geneva Convention, the ICRC is called upon to visit, register and monitor the conditions of internment and treatment of these prisoners. It has pursued dialogue on this matter with the parties since before the outbreak of the hostilities, and has received confirmation that its role and mandate under IHL would be respected and facilitated. It is now discussing the question of access to prisoners of war with the parties.

Ensuring respect for IHL 

The ICRC has handed over a Memorandum containing a summary of the essential provisions of international humanitarian law to the following States: Australia, Iraq, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States. It includes, inter alia, the rules on the protection of persons not or no longer taking part in the hostilities, the conduct of military operations, respect for the red cross and red crescent emblems and for medical activities, and the obligation to allow relief operations to be carried out.