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Aid workers still operating in the north despite conflict

As conflict in northern Iraq continues, aid workers in the region are continuing their work. Ongoing air strikes and a rapidly shifting front line now nearing the city of Mosul, have led to the displacement of thousands of people, whom aid organisations are attempting to help.

Staff of NGOs and the UN are facing some difficulties in providing relief, but told IRIN that the security situation had not reached the point at which they would have to suspend operations.

An aid worker currently in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah told IRIN the situation was tense but stable. Pete Sweetnam of Mercy Corps said aid staff had been at a heightened state of alert since the bombing of Ansar al-Islam strongholds close to the Iranian border, saying there was a concern that armed and angry groups of its survivors might still be in the area.

Realising it was potentially vulnerable to attack, Mercy Corps had increased its protection strategy against the possibility of bombings. But Sweetnam said he had not heard of any security incidents in the last few days, adding that the situation had not reached the point at which they would have to suspend work. He said the main problem staff faced was getting access to relief supplies.

Mercy Corps itself possessed only limited supplies, and relied on other agencies and the UN to provide relief materials which it could then distribute. “We are not able in any way to absorb or address the scale of the problem that we feel is still a possibility,” Sweetnam said.

A Save the Children UK press officer, Brendan Paddy, told IRIN from near the Iraq-Syria border that the organisation had 60 staff in northern Iraq who had remained at work since the war began.

Many of them had, however, moved their families out of urban areas for safety reasons. “Clearly, the stress and worry that causes them - not just yourself being placed at risk, but having your family placed at risk - that shouldn’t be underestimated,” he said. Paddy also referred to the threats from the Ansar al-Islam to target international aid agencies, adding that the potential for risk from conflict with Iraqi government forces remained unclear.

He also raised concerns about the level of supplies currently available to aid organisations in the north, especially as the conflict dragged on and people’s food dwindled. “Virtually the entire population of Iraq are incredibly vulnerable, and even if they do not face any direct military action they face very severe threats to their wellbeing and indeed their survival.

“If the conflict continues for many weeks longer, we are facing what could easily be a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe on a massive scale.” Paddy said urban populations had little in the way of reserves, and the effects of the war and the suspension of the UN Oil-for-Food Programme could rapidly impact o nthe population. “You could liken their situation to a person very near the edge of a cliff in a blindfold and not knowing quite when and if they might go over the edge.”

Sonia Dumont, public information officer with the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, based in Cyprus, told IRIN that about 2,400 UN national staff were still in the field in northern Iraq, and there had been no move to stop their work. She said security was something that was dealt with and assessed on a daily basis.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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