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Switzerland to host new round of talks on Iraq

Iraqis fleeing the fighting are in need of humanitarian assistance

(Keystone)

Experts and government representatives from 30 countries, including the United States, are meeting in Geneva to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

The talks - the second hosted by Switzerland - aim to strengthen dialogue between Iraq's neighbours, aid organisations and donor countries.

Wednesday's meeting is an offshoot of an earlier international humanitarian conference, which was organised by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in February.

Following the conference in Geneva, the SDC decided to set up an informal taskforce, called the "Humanitarian Issues Group Iraq" to help coordinate and facilitate relief efforts in and around the country.

Iraq has not been invited to take part in any of the discussions.

Modest expectations

The chairman of the meeting, Toni Frisch, was quick to point out that the latest gathering was just the first step towards solving a slew of humanitarian problems.

"I doubt we'll be able to say that we've dealt with all of the problems we're facing in a matter of three hours," he told swissinfo.

"But I'm convinced that it will lead us towards future steps and bilateral activities."

According to the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the meeting will provide a useful opportunity for humanitarian organisations and government representatives to come together and agree on what action needs to be taken.

"We think it is important as an occasion for information-exchange," said Antonella Notari, the chief ICRC spokeswoman. "It's also important that everybody is brought up-to-speed on what is being done by whom and what priorities and requirements the various actors have."

"It will also provide an opportunity to appeal for support from donors," she added.

Safe access

Frisch, who also heads up the SDC's humanitarian aid section, said the discussions would focus on meeting the region's humanitarian needs and providing safe access for aid workers.

"The rapid development and changes in the field will of course influence our agenda," he explained. "But it's clear that for the moment, we will discuss the needs in Iraq and the response, as well as the humanitarian situation in neighbouring countries."

So far, security concerns have made it nearly impossible for relief workers to get much-needed water, food and medical supplies into southern Iraq.

"The crisis is very serious and the question is how to guarantee access to food, water and medicine for the persons in need," he said.

"This is one of the most serious questions we will deal with."

Humanitarian corridors

The United Nations, along with private relief organisations, has been waiting for the fighting to let up around the southern Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr before resuming its work in the area.

The UN is reportedly studying a number of options for supplying aid, including asking the coalition forces to set up humanitarian corridors - a proposal that the SDC backs.

Frisch would like to see such a corridor opened so that "independent organisations would have access to the civilian population".

He insists, however, that military operations must be kept separate from humanitarian activities.

"You cannot first bomb the country and then distribute food packages," he said in an SDC statement.

The discussions concerning military involvement in aid distribution are likely to involve representatives from both the United Kingdom and the United States, which is taking part in Wednesday's talks, despite declining an invitation to attend the February conference.

Oil-for-food

Frisch said another topic on Wednesday's agenda would be the UN Security Council's decision to resume its Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq for the next 45 days.

Before the fighting began, 60 per cent of Iraq's 26 million people were dependent on the programme, under which Iraq was allowed to sell oil and use the proceeds to buy civilian goods under UN supervision.

It was suspended just before the outbreak of the war and Baghdad has since rejected the UN's plans to resume it.

"I'm convinced the oil-for-food programme, and the consequences of the problems surrounding it, will be one of the questions that we will discuss," Frisch said.

Border states

The working group delegates are also expected to discuss the humanitarian situation in the countries neighbouring Iraq.

Refugee camps have been set up in Iran, Jordan, Syria and Turkey to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who were expected to flee the fighting.

So far, the predicted refugee crisis has not emerged, although Frisch believes that the situation could change radically in the days to come.

"There may be no refugees today but that's not to say that the situation won't have completely changed within a week," he told swissinfo. "So we have to be open, flexible and looking towards the future," he added.

Two Geneva-based organisations - the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees - are responsible for dealing with the eventual movement of people outside Iraq.

ICRC personnel

Meanwhile, the ICRC, which is the only major humanitarian organisation operating inside Iraq, has been left to deal with internally displaced persons and other humanitarian crises inside the country.

The ICRC has a staff of 14 expatriate field officers and around 100 national workers and volunteers in Iraq, as well as a team of 15 delegates charged with visiting prisoners of war.

But according to Frisch, Wednesday's meeting could also result in a firm decision to increase the number of ICRC personnel in Iraq, to facilitate and boost their efforts.

As a strictly neutral organisation, the ICRC is generally recognised and respected by all parties to the conflict and therefore has more freedom to carry out its work than other organisations, including UN agencies.

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva

conference summary

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation is hosting a new round of humanitarian talks in Geneva on Wednesday.

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

Around 30 countries as well as aid organisations are expected to take part in the closed-door discussions, which will examine the immediate humanitarian needs in and around Iraq.

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