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IRAQ: Aid work becoming more risky in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, 22 August 2007 (IRIN) - Aid workers are struggling to find safer ways to deliver aid to displaced and vulnerable families in Baghdad. The city, which is now effectively divided along religious lines, is increasingly under the control of armed gangs and is seen by aid agencies as the most dangerous place in Iraq in which to operate.

"We don't have freedom to deliver aid to displaced families," Fatah Ahmed, vice-president of the Iraqi Aid Association (IAA), said. "Unfortunately, we have to choose which families to help taking into account the safety of our volunteers."

"Sunni volunteers are being sent to Sunni neighbourhoods and Shia to Shia areas," he added.

Ahmed recently became vice-president of the IAA after Jamal Hussein, the former vice-president, was killed while delivering aid in a Baghdad suburb.

"He was killed because he was a Shia helping Sunni families. For this reason we prefer to send volunteers to areas where at least they can be welcomed," he said.

Safety ratings

According to Mayada Marouf, a spokesperson for the locally-based group Keeping Children Alive (KCA), local aid agencies have rated neighbourhoods according to their safety, leaving the most dangerous areas to be covered by the Ministry of Displacement and Migration.

''Sunni volunteers are being sent to Sunni neighbourhoods and Shia to Shia areas.''
"Dora, Sadr City, Adhamiyah, Alawi, Batawin, Hayfa and Hurryia are the most dangerous places," Mayada said.

"We had to stop using cars with emblems of our aid organisation to prevent us being targeted," she said. "We have to carry the supplies in small cars making many trips, each time taking a different route."

Mayada and Ahmed agreed that Baghdad had never been so violent, and aid had never been so hard to deliver. They said many local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had stopped their operations after being targeted.

"The easiest way for them [armed groups] to make you stop your work is by kidnapping one of your volunteers. Since December 2006 when Iraqi Red Crescent staff were kidnapped, we have become scared and have had to adopt a low profile in our work, delivering aid according to which areas are safe, rather than which ones have more needs," Mayada said.

"Some aid agencies have moved to northern areas of Iraq to continue their work in relative safety, even if the needs there are less than in Baghdad," Ahmed said.

Needs greatest in most dangerous areas

Most of the displacement camps in need are located in or near dangerous areas.

"I understand that volunteers have to look after their safety but they cannot leave the provision of assistance in such areas in the hands of the government which isn't doing anything," said Jabbar Muhammad, a humanitarian specialist at Baghdad University.


Photo: Afif Sarhan/IRIN

"Since December 2006 when Iraqi Red Crescent staff were kidnapped, we have become scared and have had to adopt a low profile in our work, delivering aid according to which areas are safe, rather than which ones have more needs."

"Many neighbourhoods have more dangerous and safer days, and aid agencies just have to heed this and deliver their supplies on safer days," Muhammad added.

The Ministry of Displacement and Migration said government employees often faced more danger in distributing aid than aid workers.

"Some areas of the capital like Dora and Alawi have been without assistance for more than three months because aid workers cannot go in for security reasons, and we cannot enter the area as we too could be targeted," said a senior ministry official who preferred anonymity. "And I can guarantee than our budget is even less than those of the local aid agencies."

Balance to be struck

But for Cedric Turlan, Information and Communications Officer of the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI), the choice is never about which takes priority, safety or delivery, but what is the best way of taking both into account.

"You can't have one without the other, and with approximately 100 aid workers killed in Iraq [to date], the lessons learned were dearly bought," Turlan told IRIN.

"Aid workers face the same risks and difficulties as all other civilians. Therefore, a bad security situation obviously makes the delivery of aid more difficult," Turlan said. "A key element in addressing the humanitarian crisis on the ground is for relief and aid agencies to have access to areas where they are assisting the vulnerable."

According to Turlan, NGOs have to manage the everyday realities on the ground to achieve their stated goals without compromising their integrity. At the same time, the principles of the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movements and NGOs in Disaster Relief (CoC), remain "non-negotiable".

"In this context it is important to remind ourselves that there is a hierarchy within the principles of the CoC. At the top of this hierarchy is the absolutely non-flexible statement that 'the humanitarian imperative comes first'," he said.

Turlan listed a number of elements indispensable for humanitarian access: presence on the ground, coordination and networking, diverse resources, trust and timing.

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Theme (s): Aid Policy, Conflict, Early Warning, Governance, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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