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Iraq conference centres on access to aid

Aid organisations say it is impossible to get help to those who need it most

(Keystone)

An international meeting on Iraq's humanitarian crisis has ended up in Geneva with no concrete results, aside from a commitment to provide urgent assistance.

Key topics included the military's role in aid distribution and the lack of information about developments on the ground.

The closed-door meeting, which was organised by the Swiss Development Agency (SDC), was attended by 90 participants from 21 organisations and 30 countries.

The chairman of the meeting and head of the SDC's humanitarian aid division, Toni Frisch, was reluctant to comment on what individual countries - including the United States - had contributed to the discussions.

He insisted, however, that the most important outcome of the discussions was a pledge from all sides to keep talking.

"It was impossible to provide answers to all the questions we discussed today, that would have been too ambitious," Frisch told swissinfo.

"But we've been exchanging extremely interesting views and information and [it's clear] that all the countries are willing to contribute to solving these major problems."

Frustration

Shortly after the meeting, however, a diplomatic source close to the talks strongly criticised the way in which they were conducted.

"The discussions were all over the place," the source told swissinfo. "Nothing solid came out of it and the Swiss should have come armed with a clearer idea of what needed to be achieved."

Mustafa Mohaghegh of the Iranian branch of the Red Crescent aid organisation, was less critical, saying the meeting had provided an opportunity for government and humanitarian representatives to better understand each other's needs and objectives.

"Even if only one of the discussions helped alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people, then it was a success," he told swissinfo.

Obstacles

Wednesday's meeting was an offshoot of an earlier international humanitarian conference in February.

Iraq was not invited to take part in any of the discussions, although representatives from the United Kingdom and the US did attend the latest meeting.

Speakers highlighted the numerous practical and political obstacles faced by aid agencies and the need to reimplement the United Nations oil for food programme.

They also called for international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions to be respected.

Frisch also addressed the idea of creating humanitarian corridors to allow aid organisations safe passage into the country.

"This is a key point," he said. "But this kind of access... must be coordinated with Iraq, as well as the belligerent powers and with the International Committee of the Red Cross."

So far, security concerns and fierce fighting have made it nearly impossible for relief workers to get much-needed water, food and medical supplies into southern Iraq. The Geneva-based ICRC is currently the only aid agency operating in the country.

Protecting civilians

The concept of creating humanitarian corridors has sparked an international debate as to who should be responsible for immediate aid distribution, as well as during the post-conflict, reconstruction phase.

"The belligerent parties have an obligation to protect civilians," said Frisch. "But there must be a clear distinction made between this activity and humanitarian aid."

Frisch also underlined the pivotal role of the UN in the humanitarian crisis.

"As soon as possible, the UN should be in the position to enter Iraq and to fulfil its mandate," he said.

by Anna Nelson and Vanessa Mock

In brief

The talks, organised by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, focussed on the problems facing aid agencies, notably the lack of access to the most vulnerable people in Iraq.

The meeting was part of a Swiss initiative that aims to strengthen dialogue between Iraq's neighbours, aid organisations and major donor countries.

Some 30 countries and 21 aid organisations attended the talks.

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