After having endured two
wars over the last 20 years the war against Iran in
the 1980s, the Gulf war in 1991 Iraq is confronted
by another one following the joint offensive launched by American
and British forces on 20 March 2003. In this bleak context,
the ICRC has reminded the belligerents of their obligation
under the Geneva Conventions to protect lives and preserve
human dignity. Addressing a press conference a few hours after
the outbreak of hostilities, ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger
stated: "There are limits to warfare. The civilian population
must be respected and protected... Indiscriminate attacks
are prohibited, as are threats or acts of violence the primary
purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population."
Although it is premature at this stage
to get a clear picture of humanitarian needs, the fact that
most of the Iraqi population has been struggling to survive
over twelve years of economic sanctions means that the needs
are undoubtedly considerable. Moreover, the recent suspension
of the UN "oil for food" programme is deeply disrupting
the fragile nutritional balance.
The Movement, with the ICRC as lead agency, is fully mobilized
to meet the chief challenges in Iraq and its adjacent regions,
particularly in the fields of health, water and sanitation.
Issues relating to prisoners of war and missing people is
another major concern for which the ICRC acts as a neutral
intermediary. The overall focus for the Federation is to support
the current action of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS)
and of neighbouring national societies especially in case
of a possibly large influx of refugees in Iran, Jordan, Syria
and Turkey. "Some 30 emergency response units are ready
to provide essential assistance in the form of health care,
through fields hospitals and clinics as well as access to
clean water, through specialized water and sanitation equipment
and teams," explained Didier Cherpitel, secretary general
of the Federation.
The IRCS staff and volunteers, in the 18 branches throughout
the country, are responding to medical emergencies, although
their ability to operate is largely reduced by the military
activities taking place in various cities.
Since the Gulf war, access to clean water in Iraq is a serious
problem as pumping stations and water treatment plants fell
There is growing concern about possible
direct war damage on key water production facilities. Therefore,
the protection and maintenance of these facilities throughout
the country is of the highest priority.
On 22 March water supplies in Basra
were disrupted as a result of heavy fighting: ICRC and local
authorities have managed to install a water line from the
Chatt el Arab river but this alternative is insufficient and
precarious. ICRC has also taken measures to distribute emergency
water supplies to parts of Baghdad that are not connected
to the water network. Purification tablets were provided to
the National Society.
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.
In addition, the ICRC is focusing on
providing care to war victims. In Baghdad, the ICRC has considerable
stocks of surgical materials for the treatment of wounded.
Warehouse staff ensures that surgical materials (suture material
kits, dressing material and surgical instruments and anaesthesia
drugs, body bags) are ready for immediate delivery to hospitals
that may need them.
Internally displaced persons
It is estimated that some 400,000 people have left their homes
and are currently displaced in northern Iraq. These include
people who fled to the northern, Kurdish-controlled areas
from elsewhere in Iraq, and those who, within the north itself,
have fled from the towns to the countryside. ICRC field teams
and the local authorities estimate that needs are not high,
although a few thousand, especially those belonging to the
first category, can be characterized as vulnerable.
Most of the displaced left their homes
before the outbreak of hostilities, leaving the cities for
villages. Many have been accommodated in public buildings,
or with relatives. The ICRC teams carry out daily assessments
of the living conditions of internally displaced people, and
emergency assistance (non-food items such as blankets, cooking
stoves, heaters, hygiene items, jerry cans etc) is delivered
to those in need.
Other displaced persons
At the end of March, population movements towards the borders
have remained limited. Third country nationals have been received
in a camp, run by the Federation and the Jordan Red Crescent
Society in Jordan. The ICRC provided telephones so that people
could contact their relatives to let them know they were all
right. Small amounts of food assistance have been provided.
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 condition
of detention of these prisoners. "Belligerents have confirmed
their clear commitment that the Geneva Conventions will be
applied" said Balthasar Stähelin, ICRC delegate
general for Middle East.
ICRC editor with Jean Milligan, Federation editor, Nada Doumani,
ICRC Press Officer in Geneva and Roland Huguenin from the
ICRC delegation in Baghdad.