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ICRC considers pulling out of Iraq

Around 12 people died in an attack on the ICRC office in Baghdad Keystone

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is weighing up whether to stay in Iraq, following Monday’s deadly suicide attack on its headquarters in Baghdad.

This content was published on October 27, 2003 - 20:25

The head of the ICRC’s operations in Iraq told German television that it would begin withdrawing its foreign staff as of Tuesday.

“We will begin on Tuesday to evacuate our international staff and then see how we can continue to work with our Iraqi colleagues,” Pierre Gassmann told ARD television.

However, the world headquarters of the neutral Swiss-run agency in Geneva denied the claim and said it had yet to decide whether to completely pull out of Iraq, adding that it could take up to two days to make a decision.

It told swissinfo that it was re-evaluating the security situation after two of its Iraqi staff and ten other people were killed in Monday’s blast.

“It’s still too early to say what we will do,” said ICRC spokesman Florian Westphal. “We’re shocked and devastated… and we cannot but condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms.”

The United States has appealed for the ICRC - along with other non-governmental organisations - to stay in the country.

"Their work is needed. And if they are driven out, then the terrorists win," Secretary of State Colin Powell said shortly after the attack.

However, the ICRC says it will not bow to US pressure to remain in Iraq and that any decision it makes will be independent of what Washington says.

The explosion at the ICRC, which reportedly involved an ambulance bearing the Red Cross emblem, was followed by blasts outside three police stations in the city.

Iraqi officials said at least 34 people were killed and 224 others were injured in the bombings.

Unprecedented attack

Monday’s blast is the first time the humanitarian organisation has been targeted by suicide bombers in its 140-year history and has served as a stark reminder that neutrality does not guarantee protection.

“We always believed that we were protected by the humanitarian work we do,” Nada Doumani, the ICRC’s spokeswoman in Baghdad, told reporters. “We thought that people knew us… and that we were different from the rest.”

The Geneva-based organisation has been operating in Iraq since 1980, providing humanitarian assistance in the country and monitoring compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

It was also the only aid agency to remain active in Iraq throughout the United States-led war against Saddam Hussein and has since declined protection from the occupying forces in an effort to maintain its neutral stance.

But when asked whether the ICRC had relied too heavily for protection on its reputation for not taking sides, Westphal said that the organisation had no choice.

“We’ve been doing our humanitarian work throughout the past 20 years in Iraq, irrespective of who was in power, who was winning or who was losing, and we really have acted as an independent organisation all along,” Westphal told swissinfo.

“As anywhere else in the world, that has got to be our main security guarantee. Humanitarian aid cannot be imposed by force of arms,” he added.

Cutting back

The ICRC scaled back its activities in Iraq in July, when an ICRC technician from Sri Lanka was shot dead in what the organisation called a deliberate attack.

That was followed by August’s deadly bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 23 people, including the UN’s special envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

At the time, the organisation said it had received unspecified threats that it too could be the target of a terror attack and announced that it was reducing its international staff in the country.

Those cuts left between 30 and 40 expatriate staff in the whole of Iraq, with several hundred local staff to assist them in their work.

So far, it’s unclear whether Monday’s blast will force the organisation to pull out of Iraq altogether.

But regardless of what decision is taken, Westphal says the Iraqi people are the ones who lose out when such attacks are carried out.

“We feel that the real victims with these attacks are Iraqis,” he said.

“If we are forced to alter our activities because of the security situation, the people who need our help, who are Iraqis, will suffer,” he added.

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva

In brief

The ICRC is reconsidering whether to continue operations in Iraq after Monday’s bombing which killed around 12 people at its Baghdad office.

The blast was followed by a string of attacks on police stations around Baghdad.

At least 34 people died in all the bombings, and more than 200 were wounded.

The Swiss foreign ministry condemned the ICRC bombing as an “intolerable act”, saying an attack on the agency amounted to an attack on the Iraqi people.

President Bush said he would not withdraw American forces from Iraq in the wake of a series of attacks against US personnel and humanitarian agencies.

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