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As Red Cross limps out of Baghdad, Iraqis struggle to find family members

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The partial pullout from Iraq by the Red Cross is a devastating blow to Iraqi families who are searching for missing relatives, including some who may have been detained by the U.S. military.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is the only agency mandated by U.S.-led coalition forces to track detainees at various camps around the country. When family members want to know the whereabouts of their sons, fathers and brothers, they often end up knocking on the door of the Red Cross.

But on Thursday, Red Cross workers were moving bookshelves, desks and couches from the scarred hulk of their headquarters, which was attacked Monday by a suicide bomber in a stolen ambulance. The attack, one of a string of suicide bombings that day, killed 12 people at the office, including two local Red Cross employees. On Wednesday, the Red Cross decided to pull out some of its 30 foreign staffers.

One person seeking help from the Red Cross on Thursday was Ali Mahmoud Mikhlif, 37. Coalition forces shot his brother in a raid of his Ramadi home at 2:30 a.m. on July 27. Mikhlif didn't know if his brother was alive or where he was.

His brother's wife had been shot to death, he said. Their 24-year-old son, Natiq, was shot in the chest and is also missing. Their two daughters, Shaima, 18, and Alaa, 10, were wounded by gunfire.

Christian Peacekeeper Teams Iraq, one of several small nongovernmental organizations still working in Iraq, investigated his case.

"With the departure of the Red Cross, it's going to be even more difficult for families who don't know what's happened to their families," said David Milne, a 58-year-old Canadian with the group.

Milne thought the missing man, Shaker Mahmoud Mikhlif, 54, and Natiq might be in an area hospital or a detainee camp. He took the family's case to coalition officials on Thursday. They referred him to the Red Cross.

"And the Red Cross told us their search operation for detainees has been closed for two months," Milne said. "The Red Cross is basically closed. They did say we could try and come back Saturday, but honestly I don't know if anybody will be there."

Red Cross spokeswoman Nada al Doumani said agency officials hadn't decided how many Red Cross workers would leave. She said the organization would continue its work in locating detainees because "there was no one else to help them, only us."

"Families of detainees, contractors and hospitals that we work with, they've been coming to our headquarters to plead with us to stay in Iraq," she added. Contractors offered to help repair the Red Cross building, which has a 30-by-30-foot water-filled crater in front of it.

Like various U.N. agencies, the Red Cross has been helping Iraqis with humanitarian supplies, aid to hospitals and food and water.

The Red Cross had about 100 foreign workers in Iraq in April but reduced the number to about 30 after a Red Cross worker was killed in July and after the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August. That bombing killed 23 people, including U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, and injured more than 100.

The United Nations said Thursday it was withdrawing its remaining international workers from Iraq for consultations about staff reductions. The decision was seen to be largely symbolic, since the U.N. presence already had been reduced.

The United Nations had about 60 workers in Iraq, but reportedly planned to reduce that number to 10 staffers in the northern city of Irbil.

At the coalition office where many Iraqis seek help, Fadhil Shakir Mahmoud, 30, said he wanted to find his brother.

"I think it will be worse for us because of the absence of these organizations, they are humanitarian groups," Mahmoud said. "I'm begging them, you should not be swayed by these bombings because you have bigger responsibilities here and you shouldn't abandon these responsibilities."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+redcross