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GENEVA (AP) -- The International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday it would cut back on its international staff in Iraq, but remain in the country for the sake of the Iraqi people despite the suicide bombing on its Baghdad headquarters.
The Red Cross made its announcement a day after Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned the organization's president to urge the agency to stay in Iraq.
"The ICRC remains committed to helping the people of Iraq," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for ICRC.
Kraehenbuehl said the neutral, Swiss-run ICRC was required by the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of warfare to remain in Iraq because it is an occupied country. The ICRC is the guardian of the conventions originally agreed upon in 1949 to prevent the recurrences of atrocities that marked World War II.
But he said the staff's "security has priority."
Any international staffer who wants to leave will be allowed to pull out, he said.
At the same time, Kraehenbuehl said, "we had no choice but to adapt the way we work."
He said the ICRC would reduce the number of international staff -- currently about 30 -- and increase the security of those who remain. The agency also has 600 Iraqi employees working for it, and they will remain in Iraq.
The ICRC said it reconsidered its deployment in Iraq following a wave of suicide bombings in Baghdad on Monday. One of the attacks badly damaged the agency's Baghdad headquarters, killing two Iraqi Red Cross employees and as many as 10 other people outside the compound.
The Red Cross, one of the few agencies that stayed in Iraq throughout the U.S. attack on the country last spring, said it was shocked by the recent bombing because it maintains strict neutrality.
ICRC officials said they understood Powell's desire to keep relief workers in the country, but that they were deciding independently whether it is too dangerous to remain.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington on Tuesday that Powell telephoned ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger to underscore the U.S. appeal that agency stay in Iraq.
Powell told reporters Monday that the Red Cross and others trying to help the Iraqis rebuild should stay. "They are needed. Their work is needed. And if they are driven out, then the terrorists win."
Other aid groups are evaluating their operations in Iraq after Monday's attacks, which also hit three police stations and came more than two months after the Aug. 19 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.
After the U.N. bombing the ICRC cut back from a maximum of 130 foreign staff.
Red Cross delegates devote much of their time to visiting prisoners held by occupation forces and the Iraqi police -- a main part of the agency's mandate under the Geneva Conventions.
The organization also offers emergency medical aid, provides water and sanitation and educates Iraqis on how to avoid land mines and other explosives.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)