Published January 14, 2015
Foreign aid workers in Iraq (search) bolted their doors, hired more guards or installed spy cameras outside their Baghdad offices Wednesday as they considered whether to leave the country altogether after the kidnapping of two female Italian relief workers.
"We've been feeling vulnerable for a long time, but now it's become unimaginable," said a French aid worker, asking that neither he nor his agency be identified out of fear they could become targets. He said his organization, which has three expatriate staff members in Baghdad, will decide whether to withdraw in the coming days.
The French aid worker said they have reinforced their security measures after a dozen gunmen raided the house of an Italian humanitarian group Tuesday, abducting four hostages including the two Italian women.
The seizure of Simona Pari (search) and Simona Torretta (search), both 29, shocked Iraq's foreign community — especially humanitarian workers. It forced many to rethink whether operating in Iraq is worth the risk amid a deteriorating security situation.
"We have stopped leaving the house and try to keep a low, low profile," said Frank McAreavey of the German demining group HELP. He said the German Embassy advised them against trying to leave the country now because the road to the airport was too dangerous.
McAreavey said his group hired an extra guard Wednesday and was installing close circuit television cameras to monitor any suspicious activities.
But he said he wasn't ready to quit. "We can't leave because our work here is very important."
Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders (search), a Nobel Peace Prize-winning aid group with 90 staffers in Iraq, of which only a small number are expatriate, also plans to stay, said spokesman Erwin Van 'T Land.
Others are weighing their options. The spokeswoman for a major British non-governmental organization, or NGO, that employs Iraqi nationals said it could shut its operations.
"It's a very difficult situation and we are very, very concerned about it," said the spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Will Slater, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said his organization no longer maintains a permanent presence in Iraq because of the precarious security situation. It instead bases its foreign workers in nearby Amman, Jordan.
"At the moment we are able to continue the work we are doing," he said. "That is obviously dependent on ever-changing security situations, and we review the situation every day."
Slater said Red Cross representatives continue to visit detainees to ensure the Geneva Conventions are being upheld, support the health care infrastructure and have staff ready for emergency intervention if needed.
Jean-Dominque Bunel, the head of the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq, said the olive uniform-clad attackers who seized the Italians were professionals who meticulously planned their raid on the offices of "Un Ponte Per..." ("A Bridge To ..."), which runs school and water projects in disaffected neighborhoods.
"The kidnapping was carried out very quickly and very professionally," he told reporters. "The men knew what they were doing and where they were going."
Fabio Alberti, president of "Un Ponte Per..." said their offices are now closed for security reasons, and that they will make a decision in the coming days about whether to pull out altogether.
The French aid worker said he and his colleagues have reservations on flights out of Baghdad over the next few days so they can leave in a hurry if necessary.
"We've assured ourselves that we have an exit if needed," he said. "It's unfortunate, but we are obliged."