Aid Agencies Pulling Out of Iraq as Violence Rises

Times Staff Writers

President Bush appealed to international aid groups Friday not to abandon their efforts in Iraq, where some agency officials say they are targets of an unprecedented campaign of violence by insurgents.

“It is very important for the leaders of the NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] to recognize that if they don’t go into Baghdad, they’re doing exactly what the terrorists want them to do,” Bush told reporters. “We will stay the course, and as more and more Iraqis realize freedom is precious and freedom is a beautiful way of life, they will assume more and more responsibilities, not only for security, but for humanitarian reasons as well.”

After three deadly bombings at the headquarters of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad, Bush administration officials have said they understand the decisions by those organizations and others to withdraw their international staff. The administration insists that its reconstruction efforts are progressing despite an increase in attacks. Bush’s plea reflected the administration’s desire to enlist the international community in the costly rebuilding of Iraq.


But the president’s pitch seemed unlikely to reverse the exodus of aid workers who in some cases are handing their work over to Iraqis and, in others, abandoning areas that are too dangerous.

“The threats facing aid workers in Iraq are without comparison to any other region in the world,” said Nathaniel Raymond, spokesman for Oxfam America, which operates in more than 100 countries. “These attacks are frequent, sophisticated and very specifically targeted to kill humanitarian personnel, intimidate aid groups and hinder operations.

“I don’t know of any situation where we have been so effectively as an aid community unable to operate,” Raymond said.

In interviews with 15 of the largest aid organizations operating in Iraq -- some of which also are active in Afghanistan -- several said they were working in more stable areas of Iraq and had not had to curtail their activities. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Agency for International Development said that although insecurity was a problem, the agency saw no evidence that it had had a significant impact on the pace of reconstruction.

But other veteran aid officials said relief workers were finding themselves in the cross hairs of what one described as an “unprecedented assault” in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Another aid official said insurgents were carrying out an “active campaign of assassinations” that had succeeded in slowing relief and reconstruction efforts in parts of each beleaguered nation.

Some agencies say the neutrality that enables them to work safely in conflict zones has been jeopardized by having to work under a U.S. military occupation. But administration officials point out that Iraqi hostility to the U.N. and some Western agencies was nurtured by Saddam Hussein’s propaganda during a decade of international sanctions.

In Afghanistan, where attacks on aid workers have increased from about one a month a year ago to nearly one a day, entire regions of the country are off-limits to Western relief workers. Twelve aid workers have been killed and dozens wounded since March, according to a survey of the 10 largest charities operating in Afghanistan that was conducted by CARE, an international relief organization.

A chilling incident was the execution-style murder of Ricardo Munguia, 39, a Red Cross water engineer who was helping to dig wells in a remote Afghan village. The man who shot Munguia in the head had lost a leg and was wearing a prosthesis of a type most probably provided by the Red Cross, survivors of the incident told authorities.

At least four of the dead are Afghan aid workers executed in September as part of what appears to be a systematic campaign to punish Afghans who cooperate with international aid organizations or the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai.

The four victims, who worked for a Danish aid group, were killed by suspected Taliban militants who said the workers had to be punished for ignoring warnings not to help Western relief agencies, an Afghan survivor of the attack told authorities.

Also in September, a notice stuck on the front gate of a CARE compound in the same province where the workers were slain told Afghans to “separate yourself from the Jews and Christian community.” It warned them not to attend the funerals of people killed while working for foreign NGOs.

The attacks continued this week. On Tuesday, a car bomb exploded outside a U.N. office in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. And on Wednesday, a bomb exploded near the offices of Save the Children in Kabul, the Afghan capital. There were no casualties.

“The pattern has been growing for months,” said Kevin Henry, advocacy director for CARE in Atlanta. “People are not aware of the extent to which not just aid workers, as you see in Iraq, but Afghans working with the government or in support of Afghan reconstruction efforts, have been targeted quite explicitly.”

About 600,000 Afghans have been unable to receive aid because security concerns forced the 10 major NGOs operating in Afghanistan to reduce services, Henry said. As of October, nine projects have had to be canceled, either because the NGOs could not safely get into the areas, or because locals were threatened if they cooperated.

Among the scrapped projects were a Danish water and sanitation project that would have helped more than 39,000 people, a health clinic financed by Norwegians, and a Save the Children program for 210,000 women and children.

In Iraq, however, where local staff have not been directly threatened, many aid groups say they can run some operations without foreigners and the unwanted attention they attract.

The 15 largest aid agencies have evacuated at least 148 expatriate staffers since last summer, many to offices in Amman, Jordan’s capital, from where they continue to assist, fund and try to supervise Iraqi relief efforts. At least 1,015 Iraqis are still working for the agencies in Iraq. The security situation is so dicey that Interaction, an umbrella group of international charities operating in Iraq, would not disclose how many groups were still active in the country or even how many aid workers had been killed or wounded there since the war’s end.

A senior administration official said the U.S. expected the pullout by the Red Cross and other groups to be temporary.

But the future of the U.N. organizations operating in Iraq was unclear Friday. Officials from five major U.N. agencies working there were meeting in Cyprus for a weeklong “internal brainstorming session” at which the main topic was security, two U.N. officials said. One official emerged to say there was no timetable for a return.

“How does one carry on in this situation?” asked Kevin Kennedy, head of the humanitarian emergency branch of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in comments to Agence France-Presse news agency in Nicosia, the Cypriot capital.

Still, many aid groups are carrying on. Some have hired security firms. Others have quietly moved to residential areas, trying not to attract attention.

But Oxfam’s Raymond notes that two-thirds of the Iraqi population lives in central Iraq, where the violence -- and thus access -- is worst. Oxfam pulled its international staff out of Iraq in August because carjackings and robberies made it too dangerous for the workers to travel to villages.

The International Organization for Migration relocated 30 expatriates to Amman after one of its drivers was killed. But its staff of about 130 Iraqis has continued to identify patients who need medical care that can’t be given in Iraq, and evacuate them abroad for treatment, said Adrian Sutton, spokesman for the group in Jordan.

“We’re not pulling out, not at all,” Sutton said. “The people that matter greatly are the professional Iraqi staff on the ground. It’s just the visibility of the expats which has made them targets.”