AMMAN, Jordan -- The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross called yesterday for the establishment of "safe zones" in Iraq where civilians could go to escape the dangers of allied bombs and missiles.
Cornelio Sommaruga, speaking at a news conference here, said he wanted both sides in the war to explore "the possibility of going further in trying to use the provisions of the Geneva Convention to try to create some space in the civilian population which would be safe . . . some neutral zones."
"There is the possibility it could be a whole town," he said. "But certainly the first step is to have the agreement, the active interest of the parties involved."
Mr. Sommaruga said he was making the proposal because it was his organization's duty "not only to act in the moment when the worst has happened. There is also preventive work to be done."
He also expressed hope that food supplies could be sent to Iraq by relief organizations, although he said he realized this could be tricky while United Nations economic sanctions were still in effect.
"There has always been a humanitarian window" for allowing such shipments, he said, but the key would be to make sure that the food went to civilians, not soldiers.
Getting medical supplies into Iraq has not been a problem, he said, citing "some convoys" that have gone into the country. In addition, the United Nations reported yesterday that it had sent 54 tons of emergency medical supplies to Iraq from Iran.
Word of the shipment came on the day the Observer of London reported that tens of thousands of residents of Baghdad were suffering from dysentery and other serious diseases because of poor sanitation and a lack of clean water.
While being careful not to take sides or address political issues, Mr. Sommaruga nonetheless criticized the Iraqi government in muted tones.
"There are certain problems of communication between the International Committee of the Red Cross and the government . . . which is one reason I would like to go there personally," he said.
He also complained that the nine Red Cross representatives in Iraq have not been allowed to leave Baghdad.
"Our collaborators have not a large freedom of movement," he said, and consequently, he said, the Red Cross has not been able to assess civilian casualties or damage.
He said the Iraqis "have certainly given us indications about the problems . . . but it would be for me quite impossible to quantify these casualties. I wouldn't be credible, not even for the town of Baghdad."
He also complained that "we have not yet had access to prisoners of war in Iraqi hands. The problem of prisoners of war is . . . a problem that occupies us very much. . . ."
The allied forces, he said, have allowed Red Cross officials to visit Iraqi POWs.
He said that Red Cross officials had also visited Palestinians living under strict curfew on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as well as interned Arabs living in France and Britain.