War in Iraq: Humanitarian Relief Efforts
U.S. forces have entered Baghdad and the Bush administration has asked allies for support in the post-war reconstruction process. Many cities in Iraq are facing civil chaos with many residents taking part in looting and have little supervision or authority. At the same time, Iraqi civilian assistance and relief efforts are underway. What are the current conditions of relief efforts in Iraq?
Sarah Zaidi, director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights, will be online Friday, April 11, at 11 a.m. ET to talk about humanitarian relief efforts in Iraq.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Ms. Zaidi, What are the current concerns and conditions of the relief organizations and workers have you spoken to most recently?
Sarah Zaidi: The current humanitarian conditions in Iraq are quite bad. The hospitals are facing immense shortages in medicines, bandages, and now staff who are unable or unwilling to travel through the cities because of the disorder and looting. The relief organizations such as MSF, ICRC, SOS, have suspended operations because of the insecurity and the fact that the US military has fired upon an ambulance and one relief worker has been killed in friendly fire. The current concerns for humanitarian organization that peace and security must be restored to Baghdad so that assistance can be provided to those in need.
Wheaton, Md.: Isn't it true that the largest obstacle to relief efforts over the past 12 years have been Saddam's regime? Haven't they, in the past, prevented relief efforts?
Sarah Zaidi: After the first Gulf War, the UN imposed comprehensive sanctions against Iraq. This meant that Iraq was unable to participate in the world economy. The Iraqi regime that basically ran a welfare state instated a food rationing system, which provided basic food needs of the people. In 1996, Iraq and the UN negotiated the Oil-for-Food program (OFFP) that allowed Iraq to sell oil and place it in an UN-managed escrow account. With this money Iraq was allowed to purchase humanitarian goods for the Iraqi people. The Sanctions Committee reviewed each contract that was submitted by Iraq. The food and medicine purchased were distributed by Iraq with supervision from the UN staff. The program was pretty fair in its distribution, but there were serious problems with when an order was placed and the time by which it was delivered. Furthermore, many contracts, such as pencils because they contained lead, chlorine for water purification, were often blocked by the US and UK as threats to peace and security. Over the last two years there was a gradual improvement in the nutritional situation because the cap on oil sales had been lifted.
Kentucky: Is it possible to distribute monthly cards for each family and by that card a family can collect its share from any grocery shop at any time. The grocery shops should be compensated for their service. People have to know that food is available and any family can collect its share at any time within the month by using their card. I think this way you can keep the distribution in an orderly manner.
Sarah Zaidi: Iraq already had a sophisticated food distribution system with monthly cards and 45,000 agents that distributed food. At the moment, there is too much unrest, looting, and insecurity. Even though American forces have claimed to invade Baghdad they have done very little to restore peace and order and in many cases (as observed on TV) have stood by and watched the looters. Unless peace and order is restored there is little that can be done to meet the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people.
Vienna, Va. : If the relief workers and efforts are at a current halt or standing, then where are the people taking victims and where are civilians getting their water supplies?
Sarah Zaidi: Iraq, particularly Baghdad, has several hospitals. Prior to the 1991 war the Iraq health care system was one of the best in the region. There are dedicated Iraqi doctors and nurses who have chosen to stay and work without regard to the safety of their families. Victims, especially from the bombing, have been taken to hospitals such as Al-Kindi, Al-Mansour, Saddam Teaching Hospital, and others.
washingtonpost.com: Fighting Stalls Relief Operations Crucial to Overhaul of Iraqi State (Post, April 9)
Portland, Maine: Some critics maintain that providing assistance to the Iraqi people is not in the best interest of the United States since the people they are feeding now will be the suicide bombers of tomorrow. How do you react to such charges?
Sarah Zaidi: It would have been in the best interest of the US to negotiate and discuss a peaceful alternative to this current war. Violence leads to violence. If the Iraqi people need to be fed at the moment it is largely result of the US invasion of Iraq. Prior to this war, the humanitarian situation had stabilized and was even improving in some instances. The UN had predicted a humanitarian crisis if there was going to be a war. They had estimated that 60% of the population would be without water; 1 million children could die from malnutrition; 400,000 women would be in need of emergency obstetrics services; etc. This was submitted to the UN Security Council in a confidential report in January.
Virginia: Are civilians actively helping relief workers or is everyone scared of the fighting and looting going on in their cities? Are relief supplies also being looted?
Sarah Zaidi: At the moment, people are staying put. I have not heard that any relief supplies are being looted at the moment. This is because many NGOs did not have supplies in place. The looting is largely of shops, government ministries, and supplies from one hospital.
Arlington, Va.: Under international law, is not the entire issue of supporting and maintaining order in society the responsibility of an "occupying power"? As such, are the United Kingdom and the United States failing in a fundamental responsibility at this time, with the looting and looming water/humanitarian crises? Is the rhetoric that this is a liberation rather than occupation in part to avoid these international legal responsibilities?
Sarah Zaidi: You are correct that under international humanitarian and human rights law the US and UK are responsible for maintaining peace and security and for supply humanitarian assistance. The rhetoric of liberation or occupation does not change the legal obligations, because the obligations rests with the belligerents (warring parties). Also, from the post-war plans it is clear that the US wants to assume all decision-making posts thereby making it the responsibility of the US.
Mclean, Va.: Did the U.S. government do anything to ensure that items that were banned by the Oil for Food program, but important to Iraqi society, were "in the pipeline" for moving into Iraq when it was liberated? What are your perspectives on the visible preparations for post-war Iraq as opposed to warfighting? For example, USAID has tons and tons of blankets ready to move into Iraq .... just when the weather is turning hot. Are priorities well laid out?
Sarah Zaidi: No. There was no discussion of humanitarian plans and certainly no discussion of OFFP. Currently, there are $40 billion in an escrow account with $10.9 billion already earmarked for specific items in the delivery pipeline. There is some discussion that these items may be unfreezed, but the question remains as to who administers their distribution. The US Pentagon wants to oversee it and this is in complete violation of humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, and impartiality. In terms of US priorities for humanitarian needs, it is clear that this was not a priority for this government as preparing for the war.
Washington, D.C.: Are there more relief organizations (and from other countries) waiting to enter Iraq? What countries are getting involved in relief efforts?
Sarah Zaidi: The US Department of Defense is making it difficult for relief organizations, especially those from other countries, to work in Iraq. The DOD has given a consortium of US-based NGOs about $2 million, but it requires them to identify themselves with the DOD and report to them. These groups are finding it difficult to operate under the current conditions since it puts them in a compromised position vis-a-vis humanitarian principles. Currently, there are several NGOs from Europe operating in Baghdad. However, they worry about continuing operations in Iraq as the US takes over administering the country. The DOD has stated that it will only allow those NGOs in that it supports. For more on this check on the following report, "The Human Costs of War in Iraq" at www.cesr.org/iraq/ Chapter 5 addresses this issue.
Pasadena, Calif.: Do you feel like the looting, etc.. is being overplayed in the media? Baghdad is a city of 5 million people, how can the US be expected to police the city within 24 hours?
Sarah Zaidi: It is hard to say what is or is not happening. The fact that Basrah didn't come under British control until 20 days into the war, it is hard to judge what the situation is in Baghdad. I have been to Iraq 7 times conducting house-to-house surveys and recognize the street locations, but the media keeps giving us the same street locations. What is disconcerting is that the images being shown is where there is US military presence and yet there is no attempt to restore law and order. We frankly have no idea about the situation in locations where there is no US military presence or in parts where US forces are still continuing battle.
Ithaca, N.Y.: Hypothetically, if Iraq were suddenly declared safe and stable for humanitarian work today, what is your estimate of how long it would take to get water, food, electricity, etc. flowing sufficiently to meet people's immediate needs?
Sarah Zaidi: It has been estimated by USAID that if Iraq were stable it would take at least a month to get immediate humanitarian needs met (such as food and medicine) and it would take nearly 6-months to a year to restore 75% of water of electricity.
Vienna, Va.: There is mounting concern of more civilian casualties during this time of uncertainty, open violence and chaos in Baghdad. Do you know if the military is assigned to helping relief workers such as the International Red Cross and guarding the hospitals? Also, are the civilians dividing up their food and water resources with each other?
washingtonpost.com: For U.N. Humanitarian Agency, Big Worries and Major Challenges in Iraq (Post, April 9)
Sarah Zaidi: The military is not helping relief workers or protecting hospitals. In fact, the opposite is true where the military is firing upon ambulances and relief convoys. I think the fear factor is very high given the uncertainty in the current situation. I can't comment on whether civilians are diving up their food and resources with each other, but I do know that families are housing close relative and friends who live near potential military targets.
Arlington, Va.: If the military has helicopters and transport vehicles used for quick invasion, why aren't they in the cities that need humanitarian aid already? It seems like they should of had an international team already to go in and create an infrastructure for relief efforts.
Sarah Zaidi: Humanitarian relief is not a priority at the moment. If it had been a priority then we would have witnessed a totally different scenario and not the siege of Basrah where 1.5 million were deprived of water for 2-weeks. Certainly, supplies could have been brought in through Kuwait which borders Iraq rather than waiting for the port of Umm Qasr to come completely under military control.
Arlington, Va.: What cities in Iraq are receiving aid? Has it been Baghdad or Basra? Is aid being distributed locally on the ground or any by air?
Sarah Zaidi: At the moment the only city in Iraq receiving any humanitarian assistance is the port of Um Qasr. Many people have been moving towards it hearing about the food and water assistance being provided.
Washington, D.C.: There is so much talk about how the Iraqis will view the U.S. after the war - as "liberator" vs. "occupier." Yet there is almost no public talk of the role this government has played over the past 12 years in the sanctions. As you pointed out, the OFFP allowed many things to enter the country, but the U.S. strongly objected to the import of such things as pencils and water-purification chemicals. It seems to me, that the U.S. will need to work even harder at humanitarian aid work now to bridge this perception that I know many Iraqis have as the U.S. as being part one of their "oppressors" over the last decade. What do you think?
Sarah Zaidi: The US rather than controlling humanitarian aid work, which is clearly not its priority as seen in Afghanistan and other military interventions, should turn over relief work to NGOs and the UN. However, it should support this work. At the moment, relief work is being contracted out to private companies such as Bechtel, Halliburton, and the man in charge of these operations is General Jay Garner, associated with Sy corporation, which constructs scud and patriot missiles.
Washington, D.C.: In your opinion, what would have been the ideal way for the Bush administration to have resolved this dispute peacefully? Do you believe that the inspections should have continued, or do you have another solution to offer?
Sarah Zaidi: Hans Blix was supposed to complete his inspections and give a full report on March 27 to the UN Security Council. At that point the Council would have discussed the next steps. Instead the US/UK invaded Iraq on March 19. Iraq had not violated any of the Chapter 7 articles of the UN Charter on Peace and Security. It was clear that the disarmament process was going quite well. El Baraedi had stated that there were no nuclear capabilities that Iraq possessed and Blix would have determined the chemical/biological capabilities. I don't think that a peaceful negotiation was given a chance and reasons for war provided by the US administration kept changing and were not convincing.
Springfield, Va.: Once oil is flowing again from Iraq, how will that affect the aid that is coming in? How will the proceeds from oil sales be handled? It will be handled thru the US CentCom or some international group?
Sarah Zaidi: At the moment it's not clear how proceeds from oil sales will be handled. At the moment the ex-head of Chevron is to oversee the oil industry through CentCom. It maybe that the oil proceeds will first go towards paying for American aggression and then for humanitarian needs. The US is going to be in control for sure over the next six months as stated by Paul W. a few days back. However, rumor has it that the occupation will last a few years.
Rosslyn, Va.: Bush Administration officials (especially Paul Wolfowitz, Under Secretary of Defense) often talk of post-war Iraq as being like liberating France. Do you think that Iraq, after 30 years of Saddam's rule, has the reservoir of societal strength of a France that had over 100+ years of democratic and capitalist heritage to build on after a four year occupation by a foreign invader?
Sarah Zaidi: In Iraq there is a whole generation of children who have lived and witnessed only violence. First, it was the Iran-Iraq war; next, the Gulf War and sanctions; and now the new War and occupation. This situation is not similar to France. In fact, Iraqis since the time of the British have only known one form of oppression or another.
Virginia: Isn't the DoD intervention to ensure security since there have been reports that foreign groups have the intention to cause disruption? If the U.S. actively worked on letting more valid relief agencies into the country to start aid, what are the key or immediate points that they need to focus on?
Sarah Zaidi: The 5 key immediate points to focus on are as follows:
Sarah Zaidi: Thank you for your questions. I enjoyed answering them. If you want to learn more about the humanitarian situation and legal obligations please visit www.cesr.org/iraq/
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.