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War in Iraq


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.

Movement activities
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.

First aid
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 into disrepair.

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.

Jean-François Berger, ICRC editor with Jean Milligan, Federation editor, Nada Doumani, ICRC Press Officer in Geneva and Roland Huguenin from the ICRC delegation in Baghdad.

23 March 2003. US Marines enter in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

21 March 2003. A four-year-old boy burned over 40 per cent of his body on the
first night of the US-led air strikes against Baghdad receives treatment in the Al-Kindi
teaching hospital. ICRC supplies regularly Iraqi hospitals with surgical material.

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