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Civilian Targets in Iraq

Following a string of ambush attacks on civilian aid workers in Iraq, Gwen Ifill talks to the leaders of two relief organizations about the escalating violence against civilians.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Today's attacks occurred on this road south of Baghdad. Two European engineers — one German and one Dutch — were victims of a drive-by shooting. Yesterday, a group of American missionaries came under attack in Mosul, to the North.

    Three were killed instantly after guerrillas opened fire on their truck. A fourth died later at the hospital, and a fifth remained in critical condition. A spokesman for the Southern Baptist International Mission said their workers understand the risks.

  • CLYDE MEADOR:

    Our personnel go in with the realization that there is danger. We certainly discuss that danger in security matters with them. We will continue to evaluate situation.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Outside Hillah last week, two civilians working for the Defense Department and their Iraqi translator were shot dead at a makeshift checkpoint. The gunmen posed as police, and drove away with the victims' car. Polish troops later intercepted the vehicle and arrested the five Iraqis. U.S. officials called for an investigation.

  • DANIEL SENOR:

    This was a targeted act of terrorism, and as such, Ambassador Bremer has requested an FBI team be deployed to lead the investigation, working with the Iraqi police service and the coalition forces. But we believe that this act is under U.S. jurisdiction.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The Americans — Fern Holland, an attorney working to establish women's centers around Iraq, and Robert Zangas, an ex-Marine — were the first U.S. civilians working for the U.S. occupation authority to be killed in Iraq. No exact count exists of the number of civilians working in Iraq, but there are an estimated 100 nongovernmental organizations on the job there.

    After last summer's bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, many relief organizations lowered their profiles in Iraq.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So what does this latest violence mean for the people doing work the non-military work on the ground? For that, we're joined by two people who've been to Iraq in the past month. Zainab Salbi is president of Women for Women International, a nonprofit organization that assists women who've survived wars, including those in Afghanistan and Iraq. She was born there, and is now an American citizen.

    And Abdulwahab Alkebsi is a Middle East program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy. It's a congressionally funded independent group, which supports democratic programs around the world, including Iraq. He was born in Yemen, and is now a U.S. citizen. So, how dangerous I guess I'll start because you are on the ground and you worked with Fern Holland, how dangerous is it right now?

  • ZAINAB SALBI:

    Things have changed particularly in the last week. That's when Fern was killed. That's when our staff members actually on their way to one of the women's centers encountered a lot of shoot-outs. At this point we are one of the very few who are still left in Iraq. We try to do a lot of security precautions. We try to have low key presence, grass root communities.

    We rebuild the grass roots support among … around our office and at this point even us — even with all of these security precautions and all of these steps that we have taken — we're at this point getting scared actually. Just half an hour ago I got a call from Iraq in which two of our staff, our American staff, are going to be evacuated temporarily. And we're trying to have a very low key presence at this point.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Alkebsi how dangerous would you say it is there right now?

  • ABDULWAHAB ALKEBSI:

    Well, apparently part of the strategy of these terrorists right now is intimidation and fear. They've shifted targets right now to what we call soft targets where they're hitting civilians employees whether the CPA or NGOs. It is dangerous but these people are a dedicated bunch of people who know that there are risks associated with working in conflict or post conflict areas like Iraq.

    The way they've approached it is different. We've had organizations approach it with the policy of just blending in, just work with the groups and be one of them and you'll be okay while others go with the protection and in humvees with military.

    Somewhere in between has to be a balance. You can't promote democracy and up can't help the organizations in there and you can't help on the ground when you're heavily protected, always with the military, yet we have to take some … we have to assess the way we protect our employees and the way we protect NGOs in Iraq today.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, before we get to an assessment, let's talk about the situation that's still on the ground now. Is it dangerous enough that it's becoming impossible for you to do your work?

  • ZAINAB SALBI:

    Not necessarily. I mean, you still have to remember that people have to coexist with that violence. So you still go about your own normal daily activities. The people who are … to a certain extent the violence is targeted against the people who are working with the CPA, with the coalition forces, with NGOs, and to a certain extent that it is not … it's random. Sometimes you drive on a street and there would be a bomb.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I just wanted to define some of the numbers, the letters we're using. CPA is the Coalition Provisional Authority —

  • ZAINAB SALBI:

    Correct.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    — and NGOs are the nongovernmental organizations that we're talking about here. How do you coexist with the violence?

  • ABDULWAHAB ALKEBSI:

    It's part of the job. When you go for democracy and have humanitarian work in area like Iraq violence is part of the game. It's part of what you expect. You just have to like I said adjust for it. You have to prepare yourself for it. You have to have some kind of policy where you're doing your work but at the same time you protect your most important assets. Your employees are the ones on the ground doing the job. You have to adjust for it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    When the United Nations or the International Red Cross came under attack in Iraq their response was to pull back. Has that changed your ability to do your job, the job you're doing and the job you're doing in Iraq?

  • ZAINAB SALBI:

    We at Women for Women International became more determined to stay. We feel that leave to Iraq is to succumb to what the terrorists want us to do, which is to leave the civilians — the civilians need us in Iraq. They are still optimistic. The vast majority of the people are still very optimistic about the future. Just to leave it right now would be a betrayal in my opinion to their own hopes and optimism about the future. So how can we balance between being true to our staff and protecting them but also not give up on our determination to help Iraq rebuild itself and help Iraqis rebuild their lives?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Alkebsi.

  • ABDULWAHAB ALKEBSI:

    I agree 100 percent. We have four major organizations. We have several Iraqi NGOs who are working today in Iraq; we have not heard from one of them yet, thank God, that they're pulling out. What we hear from a majority of them is a way to look at security differently. They need to again — now they're becoming targets. They have the soft targets. They are the target of intimidation and fear. These terrorists want them to leave. They want instability. They want chaos where they can thrive. So they want them to leave. They are determined to stay. They knew they were associated with this. Now they have to work with it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's talk about the reevaluation of the security situation that you alluded to before. Does it help or does it hurt ultimately to be aligned closely with the Coalition Provisional Authority?

  • ZAINAB SALBI:

    It doesn't necessarily help nor does it necessarily hurt. Two things: From the Iraqi population, and in Women for Women International we work with the very poorest communities. They really don't care where the money comes in. They really want their life — a sense of normalcy in their lives. They're not necessarily against American money whatsoever. They're more afraid that are you Israelis, are you whatever? But in terms of American not at all — it can hurt because … it can hurt because the terrorists, those who are doing the violence and I have to say they do not represent the vast majority of Iraqis.

    The Iraqis will tell you these people don't represent us. It hurts any association or affiliation with the CPA because the terrorists are targeting anybody who is affiliated with that. But everyone is affiliated not only non-governmental organizations — even local businesses are doing business with the CPA. This is becoming the main source of employment. Ministries are associated with the CPA. All local government affiliates are associated with the CPA. It's a bottleneck. I mean…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    In order to do business you have to do business with the Americans.

  • ZAINAB SALBI:

    Absolutely.

  • ABDULWAHAB ALKEBSI:

    These people, like interpreters for example, the ones who work directly with the Americans in the CPA have been targeted. We haven't heard a lot about them in the news. Since the signing of the transitional administrative law on March 8, we've had about a dozen of them who are targeted at pointblank range and shot and assassinated. So they know they are the targets but these are the pioneers who want to change the country.

    Yes, there are dangers associated today with working with Americans, we have the same dangers associated with promoting democracy, there are the same dangers associated with rebuilding the country. Again we have to remember that these people who are committing these atrocities are a small, small minute proportion of the Iraqi people. Most of the Iraqi people are optimistic. Most of them want to change the country to the better. Again, they know the risks and they're willing to work with it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Do those risks, Ms. Salbi, involve death threats?

  • ZAINAB SALBI:

    As a matter of fact we just received one of our local staff members today just had a death threat in her home. She actually resigned. We were like — the whole staff were crying. We're very sad about her decision. But we all have to make what we have to make. It's a very … she comes from a very poor neighborhood herself. And there is a lot of financial consequences on her decision as well. But she said, listen, I have a family. I'm responsible towards my family. I have to do what I have to do to stay safe. A lot of these death threats are actually acted upon. It's not just threats.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    A few weeks ago one of the targets, the targets seemed to evolve from the military to as we saw in Karbala the Shiites and now to civilians. Do you feel caught up at all in the internal disputes going on in Iraq about who gets to rule and in the religious disputes as well?

  • ABDULWAHAB ALKEBSI:

    It all comes back, Gwen, to the strategy I was talking of these terrorists. The strategy was first to have these international big organizations leave. Unfortunately, they succeeded. On August 19 when they hit the United Nations headquarters and killed the special representative of the U.N., they succeeded in having them run away. But then they moved to hitting United States military targets and did not succeed in stopping them. They moved into hitting like what we saw Irbil in the North and in Karbala to try to foment sectarian divisions. Luckily so far they have not succeeded.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    That hasn't worked.

  • ABDULWAHAB ALKEBSI:

    That has not worked at all. The Iraqi people know and they've told me personally at many different levels and from many different communities, these people want us to have a sectarian war. They want us to have a civil war and we will fight it. They know it. The Iraqi people understand what's going on. A big majority of them oppose it. We're in for the long haul. This is a dip in our road ahead to democracy. The most important thing is that the Iraqi people realize this.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Is there still the possibility of pulling out at some point in the future? Do you always keep that in your hip pocket as an option?

  • ZAINAB SALBI:

    We have to do what we have to, too. Again we're responsible to both the staff as well as the people we're trying to help. With us, for example, the majority of our staff are local staff members. Security and pulling out and all of that is a daily conversation at this point. And none of them want to close particularly after the death of their colleague, Fern, last week. It's like to leave to close our office is to betray what even Fern had established with the women's centers and things like that. It's not only our decision from Washington. It's really their decision as well to stay and to cooperate and never give up.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Daily conversation for you as well?

  • ABDULWAHAB ALKEBSI:

    I'm sorry.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Is it a daily conversation for you as well?

  • ABDULWAHAB ALKEBSI:

    Yes on a daily basis. Of course. Part of the assessment is always whether we should pull out or not. We always talk about it. Is it not time to pull out? Luckily so far none of our organizations, none of our grantees has considered leaving. They know they're in there for the long haul.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Alkebsi and Ms. Salbi, thank you for joining us.

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