Aid Agency Exit Leaves Iraq Further Isolated

MONTREAL – The withdrawal from Iraq of aid agency Doctors Without Borders will further isolate the nation at a time when it should be reestablishing links with the international community, says a doctor with vast experience in the war-torn country.

The organization, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), said Thursday it was leaving the occupied nation because it could no longer guarantee the safety of its local staff. It blamed that in part on the blurring of the lines between soldiers and aid workers.

"What Iraq desperately needs now is connection with the rest of the world, for a whole variety of reasons – to build their democracy, to rebuild the country, to establish ties with other like-minded countries and people around the world, to become part of the global community again," said Dr. Eric Hoskins, president of the Toronto-based aid agency War Child Canada.

MSF’s contributions to Iraq’s health care "will be missed, but its impact from a purely humanitarian, or in this case health perspective, in my view, is less than the tragedy that they’re part of a larger flight of internationals out of the country," he added in an interview.

"Ironically, it’s sort of going back to Iraq’s isolation during the 1990s," said Hoskins, who estimates he has visited the country 30 times in the past dozen years.

MSF Belgium’s director general Gorik Ooms said Thursday, "It has become impossible for MSF as an organization to guarantee an acceptable level of security for our staff, be they foreign or Iraqi … . We deeply regret the fact that we will no longer be able to provide much needed medical help to the Iraqi people."

MSF has worked in Iraq since December 2002. Soon after the U.S.-led attack in March 2003, the group set up three clinics in Sadr City and began supporting a referral hospital. The clinics have provided about 100,000 medical consultations since January 2004, according to a press release.

In 2004, MSF supported health workers in Fallujah, Najaf, and Kerbala that faced heavy fighting between insurgents and U.S.-led forces. The group also began operating an ambulance service in Sadr City. It recently became involved in caring for displaced people from Fallujah, added the release.

Insurgents’ attacks against U.S.-led forces in Iraq continue unabated as they try to disrupt elections scheduled for January 2005 by the interim Washington-backed government.

An MSF official told Reuters news agency Thursday that the organization should be out of Iraq in "a matter of days."

The group’s decision follows the October exit of French aid group Action Contre la Faim. Other agencies, such as Oxfam, pulled out of the violence-torn nation months ago. The United Nations removed its international staff after deadly bomb attacks on its offices in 2003.

Last month rebels kidnapped aid worker Margaret Hassan of Britain-based CARE International. They have threatened to kill her unless Britain removes its soldiers from Iraq.

Hoskins called Hassan "a close friend." He said that despite his wish to return to the country, "It has become simply too dangerous for any foreigners to be there."

"It makes Iraq’s progress so much more difficult," he said. "They’re incredibly proud, capable people who can manage quite well on their own to a large extent, but there are certain [areas in which] they can benefit from the rest of us trying to help them."

In January 2003, War Child Canada was one of several groups to back a fact-finding mission to Iraq that probed the potential impact of a U.S. attack on the country’s children.

It concluded, "Iraqi children are at grave risk of starvation, disease, death and psychological trauma." The researchers found children more vulnerable than before the 1991 Gulf War. "The international community has at present little capacity to respond to the harm that children will suffer by a new war," it added.

In August, MSF had pulled its entire staff from Afghanistan, where it had operated for nearly 24 years. There, too, it said that the blurring of the lines between soldiers and aid workers made it too dangerous for its employees.

Hoskins said War Child has had similar experiences in the dozen countries where it operates.

"Because of increased controversial American and other military presence, and because [troops] often try not just to win the military battle but in their own words try to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people … the military is trying to become in many ways a humanitarian actor as well."

"They need to be separate because the first rule of delivery of humanitarian assistance is that it has to be impartial and neutral," he added.

"It’s like in Afghanistan, where during their spare time, military forces are rebuilding schools. I totally understand the military rationale, but the problem with that is people on the ground don’t understand the difference between a guy in uniform – or often out of uniform – handing out a food packet and somebody from MSF handing out a food packet," Hoskins said.

"Just like the humanitarians need to stay as far away as they can from the military, the military needs to stay away as they can from the humanitarian workers, if they’re interested in preserving our lives," he said.