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The Iraqi Hostage Headache Could Become A Nightmare

Iraqi refugee women wait in the queue at the entrance of the Iraqi Red Crescent's office in the restive city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, 10 February 2007. Iraqi refugees rely on the humanitarian organisation for food and shelter after they were forced to flee their houses to find refuge in safer places due to the sectarian violence in the war-torn country. Photo courtesy AFP.

"Humanitarian agencies have been increasingly hiring private guards. Iraq is no exception. In the lowest estimates, there are about 16,000-18,000 foreign guards in Iraq protecting diplomats, businessmen, journalists, and humanitarian missions."
by Pyotr Goncharov
RIA Novosti Commentator
Moscow (UPI) Feb 15, 2007
The Pentagon has a whole department to supervise stabilization and humanitarian missions in the U.S. troop deployment areas. The primary humanitarian task of a military contingent is to provide support for the supply service - -international charities come next. The department also helps coordinate the work of different humanitarian missions.

This actually amounts to the U.S. official concept, under which combat units receive real time information about the location of humanitarian agencies so that their staff do not fall under random fire.

Joseph J. Collins announced this concept literally on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At that time, he was deputy assistant defense secretary. A year later, the situation in Iraq was aggravated by numerous abductions of citizens of the international coalition member-countries, and other states, and by attacks on employees of foreign humanitarian missions, and their murders. The total number of hostages exceeded 40 people.

But in the fall of 2004, Iraq saw a real boom in hostage taking. In different estimates, more than a hundred foreigners had been captured. They came from Japan, South Korea, Russia, the United States, Denmark, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Britain, and other countries.

Some of them represented different humanitarian missions. Among them were British engineer Kenneth Bigley, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta from the Italian ONG A Bridge to Baghdad, Margaret Hassan from Care International, French journalists, Egyptian telecommunication engineers, Turkish drivers, and many others.

Nobody knows how many people have been taken hostage or killed in the almost four-year-long war in Iraq. In the majority of cases, unknown extremist groups claimed responsibility, demanding foreign troop withdrawal from Iraq. The Sunni clergy have denounced these actions (there is a firm belief that extremists are mostly Sunni).

What happened in 2006? The U.S. Congress-established Baker-Hamilton Study Group believes that the situation in Iraq is getting worse and is bordering on a humanitarian disaster, that Bush's policy does not work. It is hard to say whether humanitarian missions are safer or not.

Strange as it may seem, many experts believe that the situation with humanitarian missions is not as bad as it was in 2004. The statement by the Sunni clergy has probably had its effect; the removal of al-Qaida's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri could also have been a contributing factor.

Be that as it may, but we are interested in something else, notably, Washington's view on its responsibility for humanitarian missions. For all intents and purposes, the United States wants humanitarian agencies to take care of their safety themselves - any occupation troops have the same approach. There are grounds for this. The United Nations alone has sent more than 100,000 employees of humanitarian missions to hot spots.

This is a noble but dangerous cause. Almost 30 U.N. volunteers lost their lives in Afghanistan, which is considered one of the safest places for these agencies. Yet, armed protection of humanitarian agencies by occupational (or counterterrorist, as in Afghanistan) forces will undermine the very idea of a mission's "absolute neutrality" in an armed conflict. The status of humanitarian missions commits them to render aid to all strata of the population, including opponents of the regime.

It would be ideal if the population could protect a humanitarian mission. This is the underlying idea of its work. But in recent times, humanitarian agencies have been increasingly hiring private guards. Iraq is no exception. In the lowest estimates, there are about 16,000-18,000 foreign guards in Iraq protecting diplomats, businessmen, journalists, and humanitarian missions.

It is quite possible to use their services. But it is much better to have one's own expert who speaks the local language, knows the country and its traditions, has contacts, and is good at establishing them. Such an expert would determine the level of danger, and choose the best way of protecting a mission. Since times immemorial, a humanitarian mission has been a very delicate matter.

(Pyotr Goncharov is a political commentator for the RIA Novosti news agency. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.)

Source: RIA Novosti

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