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Looting and insecurity may slow NGO entry

With chaotic scenes of civilian violence and looting emanating from southern Iraq, aid organisations suggested on Wednesday that they might have to further delay entering the country to begin work.

A day earlier, lawlessness erupted in the southern Iraqi city of Basra with widespread looting and attacks on a truck carrying aid. Patrick Nicholson, a spokesman for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), told IRIN from Kuwait City that it was almost impossible for his group to work in southern Iraq. "Our hands are tied currently, because the area is not declared safe enough for us to operate in, and it's blatantly obvious as well from the pictures that we saw yesterday [Tuesday] that it's not an appropriate environment to distribute aid in."

While taken aback by the scenes, Nicholson said it was not entirely surprising as the city had only been officially taken by British forces the day before. However, it would mean a delay in CAFOD getting back to its workers on the ground in Basra. "When I heard the town had fallen, I thought we'd be in there by the end of the week - by Thursday or Friday - and now that is looking very unlikely." Nicholson predicted that the problems would subside once humanitarian aid began to arrive, but for that to happen, security needed to be guaranteed. "It's a complete Catch 22 [situation]," he said.

He stressed that under international law it was the responsibility of the British and American troops to provide order. "My message to the coalition would be that it's a priority for them to make areas that are nominally under their control safe enough for aid agencies to operate in as quickly as possible."

Cassandra Nelson, a spokeswoman for the aid agency Mercy Corps, told IRIN from Kuwait City that there was almost nothing they could do in Iraq given the present conditions. "Just hoisting a flag in the city centre doesn't mean something's secure to go in and do on the ground, working with the community."

She said it could still be some time before Mercy Corps was able to enter Iraq, and called on the coalition to discharge its responsibilities under the Geneva Convention to uphold the law so aid agencies currently based in Kuwait could begin urgently needed work.

"At the end of the day, they are the ones that have training and weapons that allow them to act as peacekeepers and handle more military-oriented operations, but we have the training and expertise to go to [operate] the humanitarian aid. And I think if we can stick to our core competencies, we're all going to be able to assist the Iraqi civilians much better," Nelson commented.

An International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman, Nada Doumani, told IRIN from Geneva that its staff were unable to move or operate in Basra because of the security conditions. "We are very much concerned about the inability to carry out our activities. If we are unable to do so, you can imagine what it's like for the Iraqi population."

Doumani said she had learned that Basra's crucial water treatment plant, which Red Cross staff had managed to restore almost to full capacity, had again been disrupted by events in the city.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has also raised concerns about the lawlessness erupting in southern Iraq. Anthony Zenos, OCHA's senior humanitarian affairs officer in Kuwait, told IRIN he believed the problems were spreading south from Basra, saying he had been given to understand that up to 500 people were entering the port of Umm Qasr every night.

"To be honest with you, yes, this is a problem, and I think we could say if there was a trend, it is a spreading trend." He believed that at present British troops were only equipped for fighting, and not for keeping the peace, but this was likely to change within a few days.

"Certainly we are concerned, but the role of the United Nations so far has simply been to reiterate that the coalition are in charge and the coalition forces have the responsibility to restore law and order," Zenos said, but noted that he did not believe the looting and violence would continue for long.

Maj James Brown, a civil military adviser with the Humanitarian Operations Centre (HOC) in Kuwait, which Washington has set up in cooperation with the Kuwaiti government, told IRIN he shared the concerns of the NGOs and the international community about the security problems.

"We've got to return an environment of security. But right now you've got to understand these people have been living without for the past 12 years, so they see an opportunity to try and make something for their families, they're not sure of the monetary system - there's a lot of things that are out there as far as why the people are doing what they are doing. We're going to return stability and normalcy back to Iraq," he said.

Brown agreed that, as an occupying force, the coalition troops had a responsibility to provide security in the areas they controlled. "And then we're going to work with the humanitarian assistance community to facilitate their return and enhance their capabilities to do what they do best."

Meanwhile, Sonia Dumont, a public information officer with the United Nations Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, told IRIN from Cyprus that the organisation deplored and condemned the looting.

The humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, was discussing the issue with the coalition and reminding them of their responsibilities under international law to ensure security, she said. Dumont added that the coordinator was also very concerned about the situation of health workers, particularly in Baghdad, where services were stretched and medicine in increasingly short supply.


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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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