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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 September, 2004, 21:00 GMT 22:00 UK
Iraq aid workers weigh up the dangers
By Neil Arun
BBC News Online

Aid agencies in Iraq are on edge, re-assessing the risks after four aid workers - two of them Italian - were kidnapped from their offices in Baghdad.

Red Crescent workers and gunmen in Najaf
Danger is forcing many aid agencies to rely heavily on Iraqi staff
Many are reportedly considering an exit from Iraq and Westerners working for non-governmental organisations are especially wary.

While their humanitarian mission makes them conspicuous, ethical or financial considerations often stop aid agencies from hiring the heavily-armed escorts many expatriates deem essential for Iraq.

"When you get together, security is the first thing you talk about," says Steve Negus, editor at the Baghdad office for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a non-governmental organisation that works towards media development.

Gangs with guns have been known to storm hotels and it is nothing new for foreigners to be snatched from Iraq's roads. But Mr Negus says the office abduction of the Italian aid workers "brings it a lot closer to home".

Deja vu

For Spanish charity, Medicos del Mundo, the risk was already unacceptably high. It recalled its Baghdad co-ordinator late last week, before the kidnapping.

"The security situation is worsening," Fernando Muno, the agency's emergency desk officer told BBC News Online.

A sense of deja vu accompanied the decision to withdraw.

"Since we went to Iraq, we have had to evacuate our people three times - in December 2002, April 2004 and September 2004," he said.

Mr Muno hopes the co-ordinator will soon be back in Baghdad but he is not optimistic - after the last withdrawal in April, it was not until July that a return was organised.

For the time being, the charity's mission - imparting medical training to Iraqi doctors - is in the hands of four Iraqi employees.

Unarmed and inconspicuous?

In one respect, all foreigners in Iraq - whether aid workers, administrators or soldiers - react in a similar fashion to the rising threat: by training locals to take up their task.

US military vehicle outside offices of Bridge to Baghdad NGO after four of its employees were abducted
US troops at the office where two Italian aid workers were abducted
"We're already handing over to Iraqi staff," says Mr Muno, echoing the expression used by the US-led coalition when it handed over key duties to Iraqi politicians and police officers in June.

When its Baghdad office was bombed in October last year, the Red Cross evacuated much of its staff to neighbouring Jordan and transferred key duties to Iraqi employees.

"We continued our work but changed our methods," the organisation's Middle East spokeswoman, Rana Sidani, told BBC News Online.

The Red Cross, which has refused armed guards for any of its staff for fear of compromising its neutrality, now has some 400 Iraqis working for it.

The reduced reliance on foreign workers means it is now, arguably, less of a target for insurgents than it was a year ago.

The abduction of the Italian aid workers is worrying, says Ms Sidani, but it is "premature" to decide whether to scale back in Iraq.

For the time being, the aid workers staying put in Iraq are left trading survival tips.

Moving in military-style convoys is no longer a guarantee of security, many say, maintaining that the safest way is to travel with the locals, unarmed and inconspicuous.

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