MONTREAL - The withdrawal from Iraq of aid agency Doctors Without Borders will
further isolate the nation at a time when it should be reestablishing links
with the international community, says a doctor with vast experience in the
The organization, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), said
Thursday it was leaving the occupied nation because it could no longer guarantee
the safety of its local staff. It blamed that in part on the blurring of the
lines between soldiers and aid workers.
"What Iraq desperately needs now is connection with the rest of the world,
for a whole variety of reasons to build their democracy, to rebuild the
country, to establish ties with other like-minded countries and people around
the world, to become part of the global community again," said Dr. Eric
Hoskins, president of the Toronto-based aid agency War
MSF's contributions to Iraq's health care "will be missed, but its impact
from a purely humanitarian, or in this case health perspective, in my view,
is less than the tragedy that they're part of a larger flight of internationals
out of the country," he added in an interview.
"Ironically, it's sort of going back to Iraq's isolation during the 1990s,"
said Hoskins, who estimates he has visited the country 30 times in the past
MSF Belgium's director general Gorik Ooms said Thursday, "It has become
impossible for MSF as an organization to guarantee an acceptable level of security
for our staff, be they foreign or Iraqi ... . We deeply regret the fact that
we will no longer be able to provide much needed medical help to the Iraqi people."
MSF has worked in Iraq since December 2002. Soon after the U.S.-led attack
in March 2003, the group set up three clinics in Sadr City and began supporting
a referral hospital. The clinics have provided about 100,000 medical consultations
since January 2004, according to a press release.
In 2004, MSF supported health workers in Fallujah, Najaf, and Kerbala that
faced heavy fighting between insurgents and U.S.-led forces. The group also
began operating an ambulance service in Sadr City. It recently became involved
in caring for displaced people from Fallujah, added the release.
Insurgents' attacks against U.S.-led forces in Iraq continue unabated as they
try to disrupt elections scheduled for January 2005 by the interim Washington-backed
An MSF official told Reuters news agency Thursday that the organization should
be out of Iraq in "a matter of days."
The group's decision follows the October exit of French aid group Action Contre
la Faim. Other agencies, such as Oxfam, pulled out of the violence-torn nation
months ago. The United Nations removed its international staff after deadly
bomb attacks on its offices in 2003.
Last month rebels kidnapped aid worker Margaret Hassan of Britain-based CARE
International. They have threatened to kill her unless Britain removes its soldiers
Hoskins called Hassan "a close friend." He said that despite his
wish to return to the country, "It has become simply too dangerous for
any foreigners to be there."
"It makes Iraq's progress so much more difficult," he said. "They're
incredibly proud, capable people who can manage quite well on their own to a
large extent, but there are certain [areas in which] they can benefit from the
rest of us trying to help them."
In January 2003, War Child Canada was one of several groups to back a fact-finding
mission to Iraq that probed the potential impact of a U.S. attack on the country's
It concluded, "Iraqi children are at grave risk of starvation, disease, death
and psychological trauma." The researchers found children more vulnerable
than before the 1991 Gulf War. "The international community has at present
little capacity to respond to the harm that children will suffer by a new war,"
In August, MSF had pulled its entire staff from Afghanistan, where it had operated
for nearly 24 years. There, too, it said that the blurring of the lines between
soldiers and aid workers made it too dangerous for its employees.
Hoskins said War Child has had similar experiences in the dozen countries where
"Because of increased controversial American and other military presence,
and because [troops] often try not just to win the military battle but in their
own words try to win the 'hearts and minds' of the people ... the military is
trying to become in many ways a humanitarian actor as well."
"They need to be separate because the first rule of delivery of humanitarian
assistance is that it has to be impartial and neutral," he added.
"It's like in Afghanistan, where during their spare time, military forces
are rebuilding schools. I totally understand the military rationale, but the
problem with that is people on the ground don't understand the difference between
a guy in uniform or often out of uniform handing out a food packet
and somebody from MSF handing out a food packet," Hoskins said.
"Just like the humanitarians need to stay as far away as they can from
the military, the military needs to stay away as they can from the humanitarian
workers, if they're interested in preserving our lives," he said.