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War in Iraq and the aftermath


The war in Iraq — at least the acute phase — is over, but the way ahead is fraught with uncertainties. The most obvious question being asked is: what will Iraq be like once it regains its sovereignty?

For the moment, the situation is still unstable and a host of day-to-day humanitarian problems are taking precedence over the future organization of the country, even if the two aspects are inextricably linked.

Between 20 March and mid-April, the Iraqi population — in particular civilians — suffered terribly from the effects of the bombardments and fighting. Thousands of people were killed or wounded, many of who were unable to receive prompt medical care, while numerous towns were left without water and electricity. The ICRC's decision to remain in the country during the hostilities to ensure that a minimum of vital operations was maintained is to be commended. The dialogue fostered with the Iraqi leadership during the ICRC's 23-year presence in the country enabled it to accomplish its tasks with the necessary support of the relevant authorities including the current occupying forces. Its action helped save lives through the distribution of medical supplies to hospitals and the repair of water-pumping stations in dangerous zones. For its commitment, the organization paid a high price: one of its delegates, Vatche Arslanian, lost his life in the course of his duties after being caught in crossfire in Baghdad on 8 April.

When independent information was hard to come by during the conflict, the ICRC went to great lenghts to provide an objective view of the humanitarian situation in a variety of languages, including Arabic.

Acting on the needs

During the hostilities, the ICRC's three main areas priorities were to ensure the treatment of war wounded through assistance to hospitals in the form of medical materials and fuel; to supply of clean water to vital institutions and the population at large; and the protection of prisoners of war, internees and the most vulnerable sectors of the civilian population. As soon as the security situation allowed it, the ICRC with the support of about 30 different National Societies reinforced its staff — 500 staff including 120 expatriates — and began to extend its activities according to the most pressing needs and to carry out in-depth assessment.

As regards water supply, ICRC expatriate and local technicians and employees of the Iraqi services are working round the clock to rehabilitate water-pumping stations and sewage systems in Baghdad and other towns around the country. At the request of both parties, the ICRC is facilitating contacts between American and British forces and the Iraqi civil authorities with respect to the restoration of water, sewage and electricity services and rubbish collection: indeed, in conformity with the Fourth Geneva Convention, the provision of basic services is the responsibility of the United States and the United Kingdom in thier capacity as occupying powers.

Operating out of its offices in Baghdad and in Erbil and Suleimanyeh in the north and Basra in the south, ICRC teams are active in all the worst hit regions and are striving to meet needs as they arise. Programmes include supplying food and basic assistance to the most vulnerable such as the homeless and victims of the widespread looting, in particular medico-social institutions. Orphans, handicapped and elderly people are among the main beneficiaries of this assistance.

Another major threat is the remnants of war and anti-personal mines laid throughout the country. Movement's awareness programmes are a crucial step in this race against time.

Concerted action

Responding effectively to the needs in Iraq is a major challenge for the whole International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. For a start, the Iraqi Red Crescent has disintegrated at the leadership level, although local branches are still managing to function to varying degrees depending on the region. Supporting the rebuilding of the National Society will doubtless be a priority for the International Federation in accordance with a time frame that still needs to be established. As lead agency, the ICRC is currently focusing in part on the creation of a platform on which to bring together National Societies interested in participating in a coordinated Movement effort in Iraq. Following the meeting of 33 National Societies in Baghdad in mid-May, more staff-on-loan and rapid impact assistance projects are being implemented, while in-kind contributions and material donations are distributed as needs dictate.

"It is important that the Movement is as widely operational as the needs dictate, in particular the Red Crescent Societies which have a potentially important role to play in the rehabilitation phase," stresses Balthasar Staehlin, ICRC delegate-general for the Middle East. Achieving this objective will no doubt depend primarily on how the situation evolves within Iraq in the coming months.

More broadly, public order and security
as well as the current lack of an effective public administration is affecting all rehabilitation efforts.

The missing

As a result of the war, many Iraqis are without news of their loved ones and are anxious for any sign of life. To meet this demand, the ICRC has set up near Geneva a unit of the Central Tracing Agency dealing specifically with the war in Iraq, which is centralizing data pertaining to prisoners of war and the restoration of family links. The unit comprises more than 50 people, mainly translators, keyboard operators, IT specialists and various experts in detention and tracing matters. According to Pierre Barras, head of the unit, "Our two priorities are closely linked, that is, to compile a register of prisoners of war and missing persons and to re-establish contact between members of Iraqi families dispersed by the conflict." More than 7,000 prisoners of war and civilian internees in the hands of US and British forces were registered in the south of the country during the first three weeks of April — their number decreased to 2,000 in early May due to releases. Moreover, more than 7,500 short messages entitled 'safe and well' were collected in Iraq and immediately transmitted to their addressees elsewhere in the world through the ICRC and the network of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. In the long run, the ICRC's major task will be to handle the issue of the missing including cases from the Iraq-Iran war, the Gulf war, Saddam Hussein's regime and this latest war launched by allied forces.

Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent magazine.

Al Kindi hospital, Baghdad, 9 April 2003. This man has just recovered his brother's body.

Baghdad, 23 April 2003. US troops in front of ICRC delegation.

Baghdad, 9 April 2003. Some Iraqi people requesting various services from US troops.

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