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The Red Cross in Iraq: In Harm’s Way

October 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: In many war zones, the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross is one of first groups in and one of the last out. But Monday’s attack on the group’s Baghdad headquarters led to today’s news that the Red Cross, known as the Red Crescent in Muslim countries, will reduce its foreign staff. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Colin Powell urged the group to remain.

COLIN POWELL: They are needed. Their work is need. If they are driven out, then the terrorists win.

GWEN IFILL: Before today’s announcement, the Red Cross staff in Iraq was already dwindling. When major combat ended in May, more than 100 foreign staffers were working alongside Iraqi colleagues. But that number has dropped after a series of deadly attacks on aid workers, including the August bombing of the U.N. headquarters.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the Red Cross decision to reduce its staff in Baghdad, we’re joined by Roland Huguenin-Benjamin. He was the spokesperson for the ICRC in Baghdad during the war, and returned to London earlier this month. Welcome, sir.

You folks have been in Baghdad through three wars, including through the end of major combat earlier this year. What is happening now that is making you withdraw at least part of your forces there?

ROLAND HUGUENIN-BENJAMIN: Well, the attack that took place on Monday was unprecedented against the International Committee of the Red Cross. We have had colleagues killed in various places around the world, but we have never, ever had a bomb attack occur against our premises. So, we do have to take stock and reconsider our position and take up the responsibility, the moral responsibility involved in sending people out there, or keeping a large number of Iraqi staff active in premises that have come under serious attack.

GWEN IFILL: When you say “serious attack,” do you think for even a minute that the Red Cross itself is being targeted?

ROLAND HUGUENIN-BENJAMIN: No, I believe that the Red Cross has been targeted as a soft and easy target to convey a message to the occupying forces by the people who wanted to gain as much attention as possible to the international community, for ICRC is a strictly neutral and humanitarian organization, and it doesn’t benefit from the protection of armed guards and wouldn’t want to have armed protection for its delegates. So, it was a very easy target. We believe in humanity, we believe in those values, and we were hoping that we will be protected by the fact that we are apolitical and not involved in the nature of conflict itself there.

GWEN IFILL: Because you are apolitical and you are widely known as being neutral, does it worry you that in some way you are being lumped in with the deputy mayor of Baghdad and others who have been killed since major combat ended because they were seen as being in cooperation with the occupation forces?

ROLAND HUGUENIN-BENJAMIN: Well, we insist very much on the fact that if we want to be efficient in the humanitarian field we have to be perceived to be strictly neutral and independent. We cannot seem to be affiliated with either party, be it the Iraqi side or be it the coalition forces on the other side. So we want to make our decision independently whether we can stay, whether we can go on with the humanitarian activities we’re carrying out now. The need is still there. As long as there is no serious reconstruction program going on, we are still needed to do quick fix, as we call it, on the water stations. We are still helping to reestablish hospitals. And we are involved mainly now in visiting the prisoners that are detained at the hands of the coalition forces. So in order to be able to deliver this mission in a credible way for all sides, we have to be seen to be neutral and to be respected as such.

GWEN IFILL: Because you are a party to the Geneva Convention you have to stay, I understand, in Baghdad, or in Iraq, to do the things you were just describing. Do you…help us know how many people are we talking about who are left? How many have been withdrawn? How many Iraqi nationals are still working there on your behalf?

ROLAND HUGUENIN-BENJAMIN: Well, this year it’s been going up and down, if I may say, because we used to have a large group of people before the war itself. Then in order to be able to perform in April we had kept a core team of expatriate workers who were all volunteering to stay throughout the war. And we had given the choice to our national Iraqi staff to either stay home during the bombardment or to come to work. Each one was volunteering to come to work. We are doing the same now. So, the numbers are not yet clearly defined of who will be present in the offices of ICRC or in the field as of now. But we are definitely keeping a team that will be sufficient to ensure that we are going on with our operations.

GWEN IFILL: As we reported, Colin Powell made a personal appeal to the ICRC not to pull out. Did that influence your thinking in deciding how many people to pull out, how many people to leave behind?

ROLAND HUGUENIN-BENJAMIN: Well, we had been reassessing our presence in Iraq ever since the 22nd of July, when one delegate was killed at gunpoint on the road from Baghdad to Hillah. At that stage, we had decided to pull out a number of international staff members, and we had kept enough to have the operations going on. We also had a system of people moving in and out, flying in from neighboring countries for specific missions on a short term. Right now, we are reconsidering and taking stock of the new situation, and we definitely want to keep a sufficient number of people on the spot to make sure that the visits to prisoners can go on, and to make sure that the main urgently needed repair toward the stations can still go on.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about the situation there right now, in your opinion, based on your experience on the ground and your experience now at somewhat of a distance, would you say that the situation, the security situation has dramatically deteriorated in the last few weeks because of these incidents?

ROLAND HUGUENIN-BENJAMIN: I believe that the situation we are face facing now is totally different from the one we were expecting early summer. In the months of May and June, a large number of organizations had moved into the country with the hope to develop programs and to organize development activities. Because of the serious constraints, on security on movement of people inside the country, because of the danger, most of these groups have had to pull out.

Now the ICRC has been said to be the first to move in, the last to move out in many situations. I certainly hope that we can establish that it is possible to keep free space for humanitarian activity on a neutral basis, even in a conflict in which there are forces fighting against the occupation of the national territory, and a situation in which there is very difficult, serious constraints on the security of international staff.

GWEN IFILL: Now, yours is, of course, not the only group to have reevaluated its presence there. When a lot of these humanitarian groups first arrived, I gather, you were around the country with the Red Crescent and the Red Cross visibly on your vehicles. There were bright yellow vehicles for some groups, there were stickers all over cars. Now it’s a very low-profile way of getting around the country, I gather, because of the security constraints. Are you still able to do the job you went there to do?

ROLAND HUGUENIN-BENJAMIN: Well, up until last Monday we were operating normally. Of course, we had given very serious orders to the staff members not to move about if it was unnecessary, not to travel on certain roads, not to go out after dark, and people were accepting those constraints on their own personal lives. It meant that they were basically going from home to the working place and not moving about very much. Now we are going to keep a number of people there. They are all volunteering, they are all seasoned workers, most of them have been working in many other countries before. They have all expressed a will and a determination to stay. But certainly, the security constraints are going to be even higher.

GWEN IFILL: Roland Huguenin-Benjamin, thank you so much for joining us.