Aid workers leaving posts inside Iraq

Some fear for their safety in escalating violence

October 12, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The great majority of foreign aid workers in Iraq, fearing that they have become targets of the postwar violence, have quietly pulled out of the country in the past month, leaving essential relief work to their Iraqi colleagues and slowing much of the reconstruction effort.

Projects that have been abandoned, at least temporarily, because of the exodus include efforts to dig village wells, repair electrical systems and refurbish health clinics and local hospitals - all of which could bring much-needed services to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

The largest staff reduction has been at the United Nations operation in Iraq, which, after two bombings at its main compound since August, cut its work force to 35 from a peak of 600.

Nearly every other relief organization has made some reductions, saying that parts of Iraq are highly risky, between bombings, shootings and street crime. There have been two killings of aid workers since July, three grenade attacks on aid groups in the past month and at least two carjackings.

Doctors Without Borders, founded by a French group, is weighing whether to proceed with plans to build two more medical clinics, in addition to the three it runs. Another French group shut down a program for children. The International Committee of the Red Cross has greatly reduced its system to help Iraqis find missing relatives and has cut back on medical assistance to hospitals and clinics.

The U.N. Development Program has put off major reconstruction of electrical systems, and some groups have pulled out their foreign workers altogether.

With the shrinking presence of relief workers, the U.S. military and its contractors find themselves more isolated as they deal with the daily problems of Iraqis.

It is a difficult choice, aid groups say, whether to stay in Iraq now that most of their work has shifted to longer-term reconstruction projects that could nonetheless improve Iraqis' lives considerably.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, normally the first to join these dangerous situations and the last to leave, has reduced its work force to 30 from 130 at its peak. The group now restricts itself to providing help in medical emergencies and visiting detainees and prisoners of war to ensure that they are afforded their rights under the Geneva Conventions.

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