WASHINGTON – Relief workers on the ground in Iraq say they gamble daily with street violence — looters, thugs and even kids playing with live munitions — as they walk a tightrope trying to gain access to the country’s hot spots.
"Last night was the first night that I didn’t hear gunshots outside my window," Alina Labrada, an aid worker with CARE International (search) in Baghdad, told FoxNews.com on Wednesday. "Because you have no central authority, and no authority in all parts of the city, you have different pockets of the city that are controlled by different people."
Labrada said that aid workers have had to get permission from local religious leaders to come into an area of Baghdad called Saddam City to help out in hospitals there.
She said tensions are on high not only because of uncertainty about the future, but because parts of the city don't have electricity and water purification systems are inoperable. Children with gastrointestinal viruses from dirty drinking water and piles of sewage in the streets take up many of the hospital beds.
"If people had more lights and electricity, that would obviously contribute to the security and cut back on the frustrations," Labrada said. "It’s all interrelated."
Relief workers try to remain impartial about the conflicts that pitch them into humanitarian emergencies — saying their role is merely to help provide basics. But the situation in Iraq has been especially difficult for them, they say, because they find themselves increasingly reliant on the U.S.-led military for security.
Aid providers say the circumstance not only puts them in ethically uncomfortable positions but makes them less effective in dealing with a skeptical public.
"Pretty much across the board, you have clearly seen discomfort with working under the direction of the military," said Rick Augsburger, an official with Church World Service (search), which has aid workers providing health care services in Iraq right now.
"It’s a catch-22. We need a secure environment, but we feel the role of the military is to provide a safe and secure civilian space and that’s where the role should end," he said. "Then the humanitarian aid groups should be able to come in and do what they do best."
Adds Peter Bell, president and CEO of CARE USA: "What is needed is not combat soldiers, but a police force. Some Iraqi police have been reactivated, but it’s not really enough."
In the capital Baghdad, the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (search) is attempting to establish a new government and infrastructure against the backdrop of competing religious leaders, political jockeying, rampant lawlessness and poverty.
This week, President Bush announced that he was sending a civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer (search), to take over the office. The move is seen as an attempt to reduce the appearance that the U.S. military is deciding political matters.
Even so, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld suggested Friday that stabilizing the newly liberated country could take longer than a year, and vowed U.S. military forces will stay there during that time.
U.S. military officials acknowledge that coalition forces are "stretched thin" — 150,000-strong across the country — and security will remain the most critical issue facing the country, at least until international peacekeeping forces arrive later this month.
Meanwhile, several non-governmental aid organizations say they continue to travel unsafe roads in order to do their jobs. Until airspace is opened to private and international organizations, tons of food and medical supplies have to be brought via truck convoys from Jordan, Turkey, Iran and Syria.
"The fact is the humanitarian relief is getting up and getting in there, but large parts of the country remain insecure and unstable," said Gordon Weiss, a spokesman for the United Nations Children’s Fund (search), a lead agency delivering food, medicine and clean water to the Iraqi people.
Security in the southern region of the country, including Basra, also remains a problem, said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the U.N. Secretary General in New York. Hospitals have been looted and health workers have been threatened. He said coalition forces are not to blame.
"There has been an increase in the level of security that has been provided, but we are dealing with a very unstable situation on the ground, and obviously the security can only go so far," he said.
Bell said that despite the military's efforts to protect them, aid groups may be better off on their own.
"Given the insecurity of the country, we need to coordinate with the military, but we do not want to be coordinated by the military," he said.
"It’s important for our effectiveness, and so as not to put our staff in greater jeopardy than they are in already, because if they are seen as attached to the military, it raises the possibility that they will be targeted," he said.