The American Red Cross announced yesterday that it had reached agreement with the Iraqi Red Crescent to deliver letters and parcels containing medical supplies, food and clothing to the 106 Americans held hostage at strategic sites in Iraq.
Negotiations are also underway to send a five-person Red Cross team, including a physician, a nurse and a social worker, to examine the hostages and assess their nutritional and mental state, American Red Cross vice president Stephen Richards said.
Richards said the Iraqi government did not play a part in the discussions but noted that Red Crescent officials had said they had been authorized by Baghdad to make the offer on delivery of letters and parcels.
Soon after its Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, Iraq detained thousands of Westerners and Japanese and moved hundreds of the men to military and industrial sites throughout Iraq in the hope that their presence would deter attack by the U.S.-led military force assembled in the Persian Gulf region. Foreign women and children were soon released, and in recent weeks many of the so-called "human shields" have been sent home as well.
"I have no idea if this is going to help the overall resolution" of the hostage crisis, said Richards. "All we can do is help on a humanitarian level."
Richards said the Iraqi Red Crescent -- the Red Cross counterpart in Arab countries -- has been allowed since Aug. 15 to send medical teams to visit the hostages. Their physical condition, he said, "was generally satisfactory" but some suffered from mental stress.
The agreement between the relief agencies represents the first verifiable exchange of material between the hostages and their families. It also gives Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a way to counteract assertions by President Bush that the hostages are being mistreated or lack medication and warm clothing.
Since the Persian Gulf crisis began, hostage families have received 269 letters collected by the Iraqi Foreign Affairs Ministry, which passed them to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The embassy sent the letters in a diplomatic pouch to the State Department in Washington, which distributed them to families across the country.
The State Department, in turn, has used the diplomatic pouch to send 408 letters from families here to hostages. While the department said this week that some letters had gotten through, the system depended solely on the goodwill of Iraqi authorities.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday said "we welcome and support this agreement" between the relief agencies. "Of course, you know that messages just can't substitute for getting people back together with their families, and we continue to press for the full and complete release of all foreigners in Iraq."
The exchange of letters will begin Nov. 16. The Red Crescent will distribute "open message forms" to hostages. The forms will be collected by he Red Crescent twice a week and flown on the only daily flight out of Baghdad to Amman, Jordan. From there, the Jordanian Red Crescent will send the messages to the United States. The forms also contain a space for U.S. families to write to the hostages; then the form's journey will be reversed.
Once one cycle of message-sending is completed successfully, U.S. families will be allowed to send prescription and non-prescription drugs, food, clothing, toiletries and paperback books to fathers and sons in captivity. Each hostage receiving a package will be asked to sign a receipt, which will be sent back to the family to verify that the package reached its destination.
The exchange is for families only, not the general public.
Richards said that, because Iraqi security forces had not censored letters sent through the State Department, he did not believe censorship would become a problem.
As for the packages, he said, "It may well be that the Iraqi authorities will look to see what's in the packages, but we feel quite confident that as long as those packages contain the types of materials that we've identified, that there should be no attempt by the Iraqis to use any of the materials that are sent in those parcels."