The top United Nations relief official in Iraq voiced concerns over security on Wednesday to the leading United States civilian official there. "From a UN perspective our immediate concerns are related with security in the broad sense: law and order, not for us as persons but for the society," Ramiro Lopes da Silva, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, told reporters after meeting in Baghdad with Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, head of the US-run Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA).
Da Silva's call followed reports that some NGOs and UN agencies working in the country are having to reassess their operations after a string of violent attacks. Alykhan Rajani, a spokesman for the international aid agency CARE, said in the Jordanian capital, Amman, that its staff had been attacked four times in 72 hours this week.
On two separate occasions in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, CARE vehicles had been hijacked at gunpoint in broad daylight. On Sunday night, CARE's warehouse in Baghdad, which contained vital relief and emergency supplies, was attacked by an armed gang, but the attackers were driven off by guards without anything being stolen. But later that evening, its office was attacked and a guard shot in the leg. The guard was still in hospital, Rajani said.
He said the situation was so intense that it had forced CARE to review its operations - what it could still do and whether it could continue operating. It had already stopped using its own vehicles, and staff were taking local transport to get around the city. He said Baghdad remained insecure with a lot of gunfire, and the situation was greatly restricting CARE's work. The organisation had 60 staff in Iraq, but Rajani said the country's huge needs had to be balanced against the safety of these staff.
CARE's emergency response team leader, Anne Morris, said the agency's work was being severely affected by the insecurity, which meant that it could not properly assess the needs of the Iraqi people. "What does it say about the situation when criminals can move freely about the city and humanitarian aid workers cannot?" she asked.
CARE has called on the Coalition to meet its obligation to provide security not only for aid organisations but also for the Iraqi people in general.
The chief spokesman for the World Food Programme (WFP), Trevor Rowe, said in Rome: "The real number one challenge in Iraq is security. What we are facing is multiple situations where, for example, warehouses are out of control and in the hands of militias answerable to themselves or to some appointed authority. They are armed, and that presents a problem with storage, which then presents a problem for distribution. So that's the number one challenge we face right now in terms of being able to feed the country."
WHO's representative in Iraq, Ghulam Popal, said not only had war severely damaged the health system but looting, which was still going on, meant that the vital health information system had been lost. "If you ask me what are the three priorities that we should tackle now under the health sector, my reply will be, security, security, security."
Premiere Urgence's press officer, Renaud Douci, said in Baghdad that the security situation there was now worse than it had been several weeks ago, immediately after the war. He said attackers were organised, heavily armed and even had flak jackets. NGOs were a target because people knew they had money and equipment, as well as vehicles. For this reason, Premiere Urgence had removed identity stickers from its vehicles and imposed a 20:00 curfew on staff. With incidents on the rise, Douci called on US troops in the city to provide the security that was part of their job.
Attacks on NGOs are also continuing on the road between Baghdad and the border with Jordan. Elsbeth Widmer, a project manager with Operation Mercy in Iraq, was in a vehicle that was attacked near Ramadi, west of Baghdad, last week.
She said two clearly marked Operation Mercy vehicles had been forced off the road by a gang armed with automatic weapons, pistols and knives, and made to drive into the desert. The robbers made threats, fired into the air, and then took all the money and equipment such as cameras from the seven occupants before letting them go.
Widmer said the frightening attack had not stopped Operation Mercy from sending another team back to Iraq on Sunday, and she herself would return soon. However, if attacks such as this continued, the teams might have to restrict their work, she said. "It is a problem - I don't know what the solution is."
Everywhere else the group had been in Iraq it had felt safe and people were friendly, but some people would take advantage of the instability and lack of police to try and make money, Widmer said. Two vehicles belonging to the Lutheran World Federation had also been robbed at gunpoint in the same area last week. For this reason, NGOs travelling between Baghdad and the Jordanian border have been advised to move in larger convoys, and take a southern route through Karbala.
Major James Brown, a civil military adviser with the Humanitarian
Operations Centre - a joint US and Kuwaiti government initiative - insisted the security situation was continuing to improve. He said the commander of US troops, Gen. Tommy Franks, had identified security as the number one issue in Iraq, and the number of forces on security missions was being increased.
Much of the improvement in security would ensue when Iraqis took over law enforcement and municipal councils, and authorities were set up to help stabilise the situation, Brown said. In the interim, though, it was impossible for troops to be everywhere all the time. "We're doing all we can."
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