Church aid agencies pull out of Iraq as time runs out
As coalition spokesman warn that "time is running out" for a peaceful solution in the flashpoint Sunni Triangle town of Fallujah, Church aid agencies working in Iraq are pulling out international staff, and reviewing their programmes in the face of continuing violence.
In at least one instance, agencies are considering suspending operations altogether.
U.S. officials are voicing frustration about efforts to broker peace during a tenuous Fallujah cease-fire that has been continuously interrupted by violence.
But Christian Peacemaker Teams who recently withdrew from Iraq said it was the "extremely aggressive" actions of the U.S. and Coalition Forces throughout the country and especially in Fallujah which had created widespread suspicion put all internationals at risk.
An Iraqi official warned that the U.S. military and Fallujah residents could be drawn into a devastating fight. "I think if we're able to solve Fallujah peacefully, other cities in Iraq will fall into place fairly quickly. If we solve Fallujah militarily, I think we're looking at the beginning of a downward spiral in Iraq that we've already had a taste of in the last few weeks." said Saif Rahman, an adviser to Hachem Hassani, a Sunni Muslim who represented the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in cease-fire negotiations.
Church aid agencies however are having to seriously consider their presence in the country.
"The hostage taking in Iraq, combined with an escalation of hostilities in general, have compelled DanChurchAid (DCA) to seriously re-consider its international presence in Iraq," reports DCA's Relief Coordinator, Lennart Skov-Hansen.
DCA has been operating in Basra in the field of water and sanitation repair. "The security situation has deteriorated during the last couple of weeks, not only in the Sunni Triangle but now also in the Shiite dominated southern Iraq. There is little expectation that the situation might improve much before July 1st, when the Coalition Force is handing over the governing of the country to the Iraqi people," says Skov-Hansen.
Therefore, DCA has "decided not to continue its operational activities in Iraq and will not allow its international staff to re-occupy positions in Basra as long as the direct threats in terms of hostage-taking of internationals prevail," he adds. A final decision about the possibility of suspending DCA's activities will be taken by the latest on April 30, after "thorough consideration of the security situation and after consultation with its partners and donors."
International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) however continues its program in Iraq, but reports that its one international staff member has been "pulled out temporarily from Baghdad due to the deteriorating security situation and the growing threat on the lives of foreigners after a number of kidnapping incidents."
Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) reports that as of mid-April, all foreign staff based either in Basra or Baghdad had been temporarily withdrawn. However, Iraqi staff members in NCA's Basra and Baghdad offices continue with the implementation of their programs. However, Ellen Dahl, NCA's program coordinator for Iraq, reports that "in Baghdad (staff are saying) that restriction of movement is affecting water repair projects in Al Anbar and Diyala. Projects in the Baghdad area are running as planned, including the Youth House and the Seasons Art School." Dahl adds that contacts with local churches and organisations continue.
Regarding the security situation, Dahl reports that NCA "had planned for the return of the Basra international staff this week after reports from various sources that the situation in Basra had been relatively calm compared to other parts of the country. But in view of the recent developments, we have postponed our plans to return the international staff members." Should a security assessment indicate that it is safe for international staff to return, Dahl says that these staff members will not be able to travel outside of Basra City itself. "Projects in Missan and Al Amarah will have to be implemented by local (Iraqi) staff." No international staff will return to Baghdad for the time being.
Local ACT member Middle East Council of Churches maintains its presence in Iraq, while Diakonie Austria reports that its school construction program in the As Hillah area is still on track and will hopefully be completed by the end of May.