16 August 2006
Faced with growing threats and violence, dozens of aid agencies in Iraq are hampered in their efforts to help the sick, the hungry, and the displaced.
"Unfortunately, the sectarian violence in Iraq today does not exclude aid volunteers, and in fact has worsened our work," said Fatah Ahmed, spokesman for Iraq Aid Association (IAA). "Some volunteers have even received threats for helping families of other religious beliefs."
The work of IAA and other local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) help many thousands of Iraqis, including hungry children, bedridden patients, widows, and the unemployed. But recent escalations of sectarian violence have limited their reach as volunteers quit and deliveries are delayed.
Sectarian violence took a dramatic upturn after 22 February, when a revered Shi'ite shrine was bombed in Samarra, north of the capital. Since then, tit for tat attacks by various sectarian militia groups throughout the country are responsible for thousands of deaths. Making matters worse has been an increasing number of murders by criminal gangs exploiting the deteriorating security in the country.
According to statistics from the ministries of health and interior, nearly 1,800 Iraqis were killed in July in sectarian violence and criminal attacks – which is exactly triple the amount of violent deaths in January.
Some international aid organizations have withdrawn from Iraq because of the dangers, making Iraqis even more dependent on local NGOs. The government has registered about 100 local groups that administer direct aid in Iraq.
The Iraqis who are displaced and dependent on local assistance – a million people nationwide, according to the Ministry of Displacement and Migration - have been hit hardest.
"We are victims of sectarian violence and the government has not shown progress in ending this serious problem," said Muhammad Rabia'a, 52, a teacher who is living with his wife, six children, their spouses and their children (16 people) in two tents in a Baghdad camp for the displaced.
"The aid agencies are the only source of help, and they are more distant each day and take longer to help us because they also have become victims," he added. "The ones who are suffering are our families, who sometimes go the whole day without food."
Rabia'a pleaded for "the government and international organizations to find ways to protect the volunteers, who are our last hope… and for the Islamic extremists to understand that what the volunteers are doing is a humanitarian action and they are neutral in everything".
According to Ahmed of the IAA, two Sunni volunteers of the association this week were threatened for helping Shi'ite families in a suburb of the capital. "Islamic extremists accused the volunteers and the organisation of being betrayers of the Sunni brothers," he said.
The daily violence in Baghdad has kept volunteers out of some neighbourhoods.
"Many times we had to postpone the delivery of aid assistance because the continuous attacks in some neighbourhoods, where displaced families live, did not stop," said Ibrahim Abdel Rahman, spokesperson for Peace and Charity for Iraqis (PCI), a local Baghdad-based NGO. "When we tried to get in, some fighter even shot some of our vehicles." Three of his volunteers have quit.
"We are a neutral group of people who are working to help Iraqis, no matter what their gender, ethnicity or colour," Abdel Rahman said. "We are here to help those in need and everyone should understand this neutrality."
The Iraq Red Crescent Society (IRCS), one of the main organisations that help displaced families, has also struggled to deliver assistance in many areas of Iraq – particularly the Anbar Governorate in west Iraq, which has been a focus of insurgents , and Baghdad.
"We are doing what is possible to help all those who are requiring assistance in Iraq, but sectarian violence is making this more difficult each day," said an IRCS worker, who asked to be unnamed for security reasons. Four volunteers have quit recently because they received serious threats, he said.