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Relief agencies anxious to gain access

Relief agencies and NGOs in the Jordanian capital, Amman, are anxious to gain access to neighbouring Iraq as soon as security conditions permit, IRIN learnt on Friday. Some 50 such groups are currently monitoring the situation in an effort to determine where and when entry to Iraq might be possible. While most are looking to the UN system for signals, they continue to gather information from a wide variety of sources - including from their own staff and that of other NGOs who have maintained some kind of presence within Iraq, embassies, security briefings by coalition forces, among others - to best inform their decision. “The information coming out of Iraq is not clear. We don’t know if it reflects the true reality of the situation,” Thais Mendez de Andes Aldama of the Spanish NGO Movimiento por la Paz, el Desarme y la Libertad (MPDL) told IRIN. For a relatively small group such as hers, said Mendez, “we don’t have our own resources to have first-hand information from Iraq. We therefore need to rely on information coming from other sources we consider to be reliable.” “It’s still not clear whom we have to seek permission from,” Andrea Bodea of the French NGO Premiere Urgence, told IRIN with regard to access. Speaking from Kuwait, Ray Jordan, the emergency coordinator for the Irish NGO GOAL, was more confident. “The picture is becoming clearer as the days go by,” he told IRIN, noting the importance of keeping clear lines of communication regarding security information open among all sources of information. Sharing his view with IRIN, Jon Kennedy, the programme director for the UK-based NGO Tearfund, said: "There are issues related to access and humanitarian space that need to be resolved, but the situation is becoming clearer and starting to move ahead. Several NGOs never left Iraq in the first place. As is also the case with UN agencies, they may have chosen to evacuate expatriates, but their Iraqi national staffs continue to do as much as possible under enormously difficult conditions. However, although telephone lines into Iraq remain accessible, it has become very difficult to get through, with some NGOs going for days without contact with their teams on the ground. Information filters out in bits and pieces, and trying to put together some kind of overall picture has become a full-time occupation for many NGO staff. “The situation is too unpredictable,” said one on condition of anonymity. “We continue to watch, wait, and evaluate. For larger NGOs, with sufficient resources and name recognition, access to Iraq has already been possible, though not necessarily according to plan. MSF [Medecins Sans Frontieres] succeeded in getting two truckloads of relief supplies into Iraq from Jordan on Wednesday, but by Friday, the convoy had still not reached the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, due to delays at various military checkpoints. Road travel from Amman to Baghdad would normally take about 17 hours. Yet whether larger or small, among all NGOs the issue of dealing with the military is a very sensitive issue and a source of anxiety, as these humanitarian actors seek to maintain their impartiality, and independence from the warring parties. At present, some NGOs are concerned that they will be required to obtain documentation from occupying forces permitting them to work in Iraq, thereby, potentially, compromising their neutrality. At present, the Humanitarian Operations Centre (HOC) in Kuwait -staffed by Kuwaiti government officials and US and UK military officers - is registering NGOs and will provide them with identity cards which will permit them access to Iraq. “Some NGOs decline to register with the HOC, because the possession of a HOC identity card would compromise their neutrality, provide them access only to areas of Iraq controlled by coalition forces, and potentially put their employees at greater risk because of their link to a combatant,” notes Larry Thompson, the director of advocacy for Refugees International, from Amman. “As some relief organisations are already shipping or planning to ship relief goods to Iraq, an immediate solution is needed to enable UN and additional nongovernmental relief organisations to work in Iraq while preserving the neutrality of their personnel and humanitarian operations.” [Thompson’s complete report, with recommendations] “NGOs are a disparate group, each with its own approaches,” one NGO leader told IRIN, suggesting that some kind of neutral intermediary party was needed to bridge the NGO/military divide. GOAL’s Jordan pointed to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as one possible candidate for this role, noting that OCHA liaison officers in Kuwait were already serving in such a capacity. Cautioning that access to and movement throughout Iraq would remain an issue in the months, and perhaps even years to come, MPDL’s Mendez de Andes Aldama called on humanitarian actors to think about the future. “We need to have a system in place as to who will make decisions regarding humanitarian access - and it can’t be the military,” he said. “They want to pull down Saddam’s regime, but what do they want to put in its place? Iraqis must make this decision for themselves.”
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