Big charities ready to roll into Iraq with food, blankets and medicine plan to refuse the protection of U.S.-led military forces, fearing that being spotted with an invading superpower is more dangerous than going it alone.
This unprecedented decision to shun visible connection with the military is prompted largely by anti-American sentiments in parts of the Muslim world where many groups operate, aid agencies say.
"God help us if we become identified as one of the belligerents," CARE security chief Bob McPherson, a former U.S. Marine colonel in Somalia, said by telephone from Jordan.
To a guerrilla with a gun, the brutally random nature of modern warfare has blurred the line between helpful humanitarian and enemy interloper. The rocky marriage of private relief groups and multinational armies in Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia may have ended in divorce in Afghanistan, when armed U.S. soldiers in civilian clothes were distributing aid.
"That increased our security risk considerably," said Mark Bartolini, Middle East director for the International Rescue Committee. "You will see the vast majority of (relief groups) keeping their distance from the military. This is a highly controversial war."
Aid agencies have become more security conscious since the end of communism created power vacuums that left mosaics of militias to compete for control in places like Afghanistan, Somalia and the Balkans.
Humanitarian groups now are more likely to pull their workers out of volatile places or avoid them altogether, and rely more heavily than ever on staffs composed of local nationals. Bartolini said the Iraqi war prompted his group to pull four of its six expatriate workers out of Pakistan.
Many relief organizations are upset that the U.S. military will be responsible for controlling aid distribution in Iraq and determining the level of access allowed those groups.
Ellen Yount, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said an agency team is poised to make a rapid assessment of water, food, medical and sanitation needs of the Iraqis, and has the authority to write a check of up to $1-million for each of the private aid groups massing at the borders of this war.
The aid agencies almost uniformly say they need to make their own assessments tailored to their particular missions. "It's the U.S. government's fault they can't get into Iraq?" Yount retorted.
Yount acknowledged, however, that for U.S.-based aid agencies, Iraq is a restricted country, and no licenses to operate there have been given out -- something the relief groups also say is unique to this war.
Entering postwar Iraq will require building relationships with local authorities, keeping clear of areas in which there are land mines, avoiding regions rife with banditry or militias, and keeping a low profile, said Mike O'Neill, security officer for Save the Children.
"We're a U.S. organization and there is a U.S. occupying force," he said. "I'm not anticipating that we'll be relying on the military for security. You see it on CNN, it could put our people at risk in Pakistan or other places."