UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Plan to register aid groups on hold until May
BAGHDAD, 17 March 2004 (IRIN) - A plan to register all aid groups working in Iraq - and to look for possible terrorist organisations or individuals among them - has been put on hold until May.
In most countries around the world, including the US, international aid agencies must register to claim tax exempt status. But in Iraq, such groups are virtually unregulated at present.
Most taxes are not being collected in Iraq, including customs taxes. However, the US-led administration plans to put a flat five percent reconstruction levy on most goods coming into the country in the next few months.
When it comes to terrorism, US officials worry that Iraq may be similar to Bosnia, Kosovo and even the US, where it is alleged that extremist groups have used charity names as fronts to raise funds for fighters in the Middle East. Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror group may even get money from such fronts, US officials say.
In addition, members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime may also be trying to form charity groups to avoid paying taxes, some observers say. "We're working hard to fix what was wrong," a US official who declined to be named, told IRIN in Baghdad. "We're just trying to make it all easier for NGOs to do their work."
Many aid groups have complained about the plan, which was issued in January. They said it was vague, with no criteria for rejection. The plan also left groups that had been rejected from registering without the means to appeal.
"There is also no place to register aid groups at the moment," one aid worker told IRIN, declining to be named. "And there doesn't seem to be a mechanism in place to collect the five percent reconstruction levy," the worker added.
Experts are being brought from Washington to fine-tune the plan, the US official said. Countries always have an interest in knowing who is there and what they're doing, it was explained.
"We're just hoping it's being delayed because they're looking for a good international law to follow," the aid worker said. "They're making the effort to get the right law in place for NGOs."
Iraqi customs workers at the border currently do not collect taxes, although on 1 April there are plans to collect the reconstruction levy, the US official said. Some Iraqi officials around the country are starting to ask for a local tax on aid groups that was collected for the last 10 years, according to aid workers in Baghdad. That tax used to go to the former regime, say aid agencies who worked in Iraq before last March. It has not been collected in the last year.
Workers at the International Medical Corps (IMC) NGO said they're happy to register and follow the rules, because that's what they would do in any other country. "At the end of the day, if the government says you have to register, you do," Rabih Torbey, a vice-president for the US-based NGO, told IRIN . "If there are issues with registration, we [will] discuss them with the government."
Another aid agency worker pointed out that any credible organisation publishes information on its funding anyway. "These are the kinds of questions they want to know - who is on the board and where does the financial criteria come from," the worker said. "If you can't show those things, you should not get tax exempt status."
Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Governance
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