With the situation in Baghdad still chaotic, the business of delivering humanitarian aid to the capital has become a very risky one. But now, according to aid officials based in Jordan, the Iraqi government is turning around any aid that has come from Arab countries — even neighbors like Jordan — who have not publicly supported the regime of Saddam Hussein and denounced the “American aggression.”
Already, tons of food and medical supplies from the Red Crescent Societies of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have been turned back. Meanwhile, sources say that aid is flowing into Iraq from Syria, a staunch Saddam ally.
Such “politics of aid” are complicating a bold initiative — only in its trial phase — to break a growing humanitarian aid logjam by avoiding the worst of the fighting and ferrying relief into Iraq from the West, through Jordan.
“Jordan’s land routes are absolutely critical to the overall humanitarian effort,” Michael Marx, head of the US Agency for International Development’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), said Monday in Amman. “We believe this is the quickest way to deliver humanitarian aid to Iraq,” he added.
DART has stockpiled enough blankets, water purification kits, medicine and food in Jordan to help one million Iraqis inside Iraq. But with war raging on, it is too unsafe to deliver all those supplies itself.
USING IRAQI VOLUNTEERS
That’s where Mohammad comes in. He is one of a growing number of brave truck drivers — mostly Iraqi — that U.N. agencies and some other non-governmental aid groups are counting on to drive supplies into Iraq. When we caught up with Mohammed, in this border town in the dead of night, he seemed embarrassed by the decrepit condition of his 18-wheeler.
Still, he was upbeat about the challenge facing him: driving all the way to Baghdad, with about 20 tons of food in tow, along a road that has been the target of on-going U.S. Special Operations attacks and coalition bombing. For Mohammad, it would be a way to make great money — some $1,500 for a one-way trip, a fortune here — as well as an act of solidarity with his fellow Iraqis inside Iraq.
The next day, we met Khader, an Iraqi truck driver from Karbala, south of Baghdad, a flash point in the on-going war. Even as hundreds of Iraqi ex-pats who have lived in Jordan are returning to Iraq, they say, to take up arms against the Americans, Khader sees a different mission.
He seems to speak for all the Iraqi truckers we’ve met on the Jordanian side: “Even if it’s dangerous,” he said as he boarded his old semi, carrying 10 tons of medical supplies, “I’ll go in. We’ve been through so many wars, we’re not afraid of missiles or bombs. And if I don’t help my family and friends in Iraq, I’ll feel like I died here.”
Traditionally, Highway 10, the 500-mile-long desert road from Amman to Baghdad, has been the route of choice for hundreds of tanker trucks, importing millions of dollars of Jordanian goods into Iraq, in exchange for free, or heavily discounted, Iraqi oil. Since the war began, that daily flow of oil-for-goods has stopped.
But, despite clashes between U.S. Special Operations forces and Iraqi Republican Guard units along the highway west of Baghdad, and U.S. bombing of the strategic ar-Rutbah junction, about 100 miles inside the border with Jordan, travelers exiting Iraq say the road is still open and passable. The U.S. military, however, has warned that its forces are still “securing” the road, and that “you travel on Highway 10 at your own risk.”
TOO DANGEROUS FOR MOST
Back in his hotel room in Amman, Steve Mathews, regional coordinator for Worldvision, a major international relief agency, is working his contacts, by phone and computer, trying to assess the risk of going into Baghdad from the west. For most of the big relief agencies, it’s still a no-go.
“We’re going to be very cautious about going in there too quickly,” he said. “People are impatient, the agencies are impatient, the people on the inside are in need. But we don’t want to get killed. We want to deliver aid.” Mathews admits that aid agencies were caught off-guard. They have pumped tens of millions of dollars into a plan to provide fully equipped camps in Jordan, Turkey, Iran and Syria, for an estimated 600,000 Iraqi refugees that agencies anticipated would flee the conflict.
But so far the camps remain nearly empty. There are only seven Iraqi refugees at the main Ruweishid A camp, just inside Jordan, filled with empty tents and redundant medical facilities, water tanks and flush toilets. At Camp B, built for 5,000 non-Iraqis, about 500 mostly Sudanese workers have passed through on their way home. The camp’s kitchen is laden with food, consumed more by the staff of volunteers than by the refugees.
Thousands of families may be fleeing Baghdad, a sprawl of five million, for safer areas to the north and east, but, so far, they are not fleeing the country. Relief workers cite various reasons for the no-show by refugees. “Iraqis are strapped for cash.” says Red Crescent Society manager Saleh Dakkeh, “After 12 or 13 years of economic sanctions, people don’t have the ability to travel outside the country.” Also, he adds, “Iraqis don’t want to leave their country under such circumstances. Iraqis are proud, and they don’t want to see it fall apart.”
Douglas Osmond, regional director for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, says there are more insidious reasons. “[To keep people as ‘human shields’ in Baghdad,] we have heard that if you leave Baghdad your house might be confiscated, whether officially or unofficially, so the costs of leaving remain very high.” Whatever the reasons, aid agencies are facing a new dilemma: with only a few dozen Iraqi refugees having fled the country, tons of precious relief supplies and hundreds of key staff remain outside Iraq, unused or idle. Meanwhile, the problem of getting relief quickly and safely to Iraqis inside is growing. The unofficial figure for internally displaced Iraqis is now in the hundreds of thousands.
TAKING A CHANCE
Within only a few weeks of food stocks running out for ordinary Iraqis, one of the major relief agencies, Doctors Without Borders, decided to test the western route, from Jordan. Late last month, one truck carrying 10 tons of medicine crossed the Karbala-Trebil border into Iraq. Two days later, DWB officials confirmed that the truck arrived in Baghdad. The voyage lasted 15 hours longer than the normal five hours, but the driver was safe and sound.
Mohammad fared even better — he drove his 20 tons of Red Crescent-sponsored food into the Iraqi capital only 10 hours after he left us at the border, smiling and saying, “I have no choice. I can’t abandon my people!”
The next day, a convoy of seven trucks carrying 80 tons of medical supplies and pharmaceuticals — organized by Jordanian medical professionals — also succeeded in making it in, passed a U.S. military roadblock and the threat of Iraqi “irregulars” on the ground, or U.S. A-10 “tank-busters” from above. An “aid corridor” from the west was open.
Then we heard the bad news — the Red Crescent food was turned around; so were the Jordanian trucks filled with medical supplies.
Mohammad was admonished by Iraqi officials, “tell them we don’t want their aid, we need their solidarity.” But that’s just what Mohammad thought he was showing his people.
Relief officials believe it’s just a temporary setback. Once the regime falls, they say, Highway 10 will become the best way to move supplies from outside the country to the Iraqis inside, who need it. But, until then, the risk taken by a small group of brave and determined truck drivers will have been mostly in vain.
(Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London, currently on assignment on the Jordan-Iraq border.)