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Red Cross plans partial pullout

Geneva, Oct. 29 (Reuters): The traditionally neutral Red Cross, reeling from a devastating car bomb attack on its Baghdad headquarters, said today it would pull some foreign staff out of Iraq but would continue to operate there.

The Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stressed it would keep up its work in Iraq, where it has some 30 foreign and 600 local staff. But it said it would review its operating methods to afford better protection to employees after Monday’s suicide bombing killed 12 people, including two Red Cross guards — one of four near simultaneous suicide attacks around the city in which 35 people died.

“We are reducing the number of international staffers and implementing additional measures to increase security for our remaining staff,” ICRC operations director Pierre Krahenbuhl said. “The ICRC is not withdrawing from Iraq,” he added. Details of how many staff would leave and what new steps would be taken were still being worked on.

Monday’s bloodbath left aid agencies agonising over their future as violence continues unabated.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said today it had decided to pull out four of its seven expatriate staff. “The other three will stay for the time being to sort out how to continue our programmes in the best way,” Marc Joolens, MSF’s Iraq operations coordinator, said.

Other aid agencies, including non-governmental organisations, some of which have already pulled out entirely, are expected to cut back further, dealing a fresh blow to the international humanitarian effort in Iraq.

US secretary of state Colin Powell phoned ICRC chief Jakob Kellenberg yesterday to encourage the organisation to remain.

Powell also spoke to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan after the bombings about humanitarian operations in Iraq, where UN premises have also come under attack. A suicide bomber drove an explosives-packed ambulance at the ICRC’s headquarters on Monday in the first car bombing suffered by the organisation in its 140-year history.

The ICRC bombing and similar attacks on three police stations marked the city’s bloodiest day since US-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein from power in April. “Monday’s attack was a devastating blow,” the ICRC’s Krahenbuhl said. Any targeted attack on civilians was a “serious violation of international humanitarian law”, he added.

But the official said the agency remained committed to working in Iraq because of the humanitarian emergency and because it was a country under military occupation and therefore covered by the Geneva Conventions.

”The conventions give the ICRC a clear mandate...a responsibility and a role to protect and assist the population,” Krahenbuhl said.“It is of vital importance to try and fulfil this mandate, even under these extremely difficult conditions.”

The ICRC has been in Iraq continuously through three wars since 1980. It visits prisoners, distributes medicines and maintains water supplies.

It had already cut its foreign staff, from a peak of around 100 shortly after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, in response to the killing of a Sri Lankan technician in July and the bombing of the United Nations' headquarters in Baghdad in August. The latter also prompted the U.. to withdraw people.

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