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NGOs Want to Take Charge of Relief Operations in Iraq Quickly - 2003-04-03

Relief aid is starting to trickle into Iraq from neighboring countries. Supplies are also being unloaded at the southern Iraqi port of Um Qasr, now under coalition control.

Relief organizations are worried about the obstacles they face getting aid to Iraqi civilians who still remain out of their reach. In some cases continued fighting makes it too dangerous to deliver the aid. Closed borders and bureaucracy delay their work too.

Many aid groups are also arguing about what they see as blurred lines between civilian aid operations and the military's use of humanitarian aid in its campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi population.

Geneva Convention rules put the initial responsibility for providing emergency relief and protection of non-combatants on the occupying forces.

"Obviously the nearer the forward edge of the battle, it is being delivered by troops," said British military spokesman Major Pete Cottrell at coalition command headquarters in Qatar. "But we also have people like the Kuwaiti Red Crescent and other Kuwaiti charities bringing humanitarian aid over the border behind us. And as areas become secure they will distribute aid in those areas."

Non-government relief organizations say they want aid missions put squarely in civilian hands as soon as possible wherever it is safe to do so.

Oxfam spokesman Alex Renton says any perception that humanitarian operations are under military control undermines the neutrality and credibility of the relief organizations.

"We need to be seen to be impartial and independent of military action so we can gain trust of frightened civilian population," he said. "And those civilians need to be separated from the military for their own safety. The soldier whose job is handing out bread with one hand and holding a gun in the other is a dangerous thing both for himself and the civilians he's trying to help."

Governments that would normally share the burden of a relief mission are reluctant to join an effort dominated by Washington.

Reinoud Leenders helped compile a report for the International Crisis Group on the challenges of managing humanitarian assistance in Iraq.

"There is still a lot of bitterness left over from the very fact that the U.S. and its allies went without Security Council authorization," said Reinoud Leenders.

He said it is time for the military and civilian aid groups to move beyond the debate. "I think it is very important for all parties to start looking ahead," said Mr. Leenders. The U.S. should listen more to the complaints about blurred lines between military and humanitarian. But the U.N. and NGOs I think should be more willing to look head, leave behind the political dimensions for awhile and just do their job," he said.

Speaking by phone from Geneva where he attended a donor's conference, Mr. Leenders says there is still reluctance by some donor governments to fund aid operations during a war they oppose.

Jim Tulloch is World Health Organization's Sector Coordinator for humanitarian operations in Iraq. He is worried the lingering political debate will jeopardize the relief effort.

"I think for us, the humanitarian effort is not about winning hearts and minds," he said. "The humanitarian effort for us is about saving lives. And I think we are obviously concerned if that humanitarian effort is slowed down in any way, by whatever constraints there are, of course that's a concern to us. Our job is to try to reduce the humanitarian impact of whatever crisis."

Oxfam spokesman Alex Renton agrees. In the long term, he says, the military has other priorities and it is more effective to let the United Nations and civilian groups with expertise in humanitarian assistance take charge of relief operations.