Withdrawal brings logistical, security holes for aid groups

Published October 23, 2009 6:22 pm
Iraq » Organizations will be on their own after troops depart
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Against the totality of the problems his organization faces in Iraq, Fareed Betros' latest headache is but a dull twinge.

Ever since January, when the Iraqi government took over control of Baghdad's International Zone, it's been more difficult to get trucks loaded with humanitarian supplies out of the special security district.

"The rules changed," said Betros, a former advisor on U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq who founded Families United Toward Universal Respect with his wife, Joan, in 2005. The group works closely with the Utah-based aid group Operation Give, which in turn works with the U.S. military to ship clothes, food, medical equipment and school supplies to Iraq.

"It's nothing we can't deal with," he said. "It's just a matter of figuring out the new system."

But in the coming years, the two organizations --and dozens of other groups that rely on the U.S. military for direct or indirect support in Iraq -- will have a bigger problem. As the American military diverts its attention to the logistical challenge of withdrawing tens of thousands of troops and billions of dollars worth of equipment from Iraq, there will be fewer opportunities for aid groups to piggyback on the military for support.

And by 2012, when all U.S. forces are supposed to have left Iraq, the groups will be on their own.

Touring the Operation Give warehouse in Salt Lake City last week along with a delegation of Iraqi women sponsored by Betros' group, Noha Al-Agha said that the needs in Iraq won't diminish when U.S. troops disappear.

"We have more than 3 million widows and 2.5 million orphans in Iraq," she said. "Our mission is to help them become self-reliant, but we cannot do this overnight."

The two groups can get a cargo container loaded with humanitarian supplies from Utah to Iraq for about $6,500. But part of the cost is borne by the U.S. military, which picks up the containers in Kuwait and transports them to Baghdad.

"Eventually, we'll have to hire contractors to ship those supplies," Betros said. "We haven't come up with an exact solution yet, but we know that it's all about money. Our costs will go up."

Yassin Nour, who heads up Mercy Corps' humanitarian programs in Iraq, said his group has always operated without military support. Its organizational belief is that it's safer to align with local leaders and community groups than to be seen as complicit in a military operation.

Mercy Corps leaders say that strategy has paid off -- the Oregon-based organization is one of the few international aid groups that was able to maintain a presence in Iraq throughout the sectarian civil war that reached its violent peak between 2005 and 2008.

Nour said the strategy also has made the transition from occupational to local control in Iraq easier to deal with. But Nour said the group might still have to weather changes as the Iraqi government takes greater degree of control. He noted that some members of Iraq's parliament are considering imposing new rules on aid groups.

"Right now they don't regulate the work of humanitarian agencies, but that could change," he said.

International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas said she couldn't speculate on how things will change for the group once the U.S. departed.

It too has had to deal with a shift in leadership and bureaucracy, particularly as Iraqi prisoners - -- whose living conditions are monitored by the group -- have been transferred from U.S. to Iraqi prisons.

As the U.S. military leaves, leaders from the aid groups that remain also will have to determine which institutions they will rely on in emergencies. U.S. military hospitals in Iraq have long been responsible for treating and evacuating wounded aid workers, for instance. And even groups that have staunchly opposed the American occupation of Iraq still rely on the military sometimes in a crisis.

After three hostages from the Chicago-based Christian Peacemakers Team were freed by a multi-national military operation after being held hostage for four months, the anti-war group issued a statement blaming the kidnapping -- and murder of team member Tom Fox -- on "the illegal occupation of Iraq."

British Army commander Gen. Mike Jackson quickly criticized the group, telling a United Kingdom news station that he was "saddened that there doesn't seem to have been a note of gratitude for the soldiers who risked their lives to save those lives."

mlaplante@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">mlaplante@sltrib.com



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