Iraq humanitarian crisis likely if U.S. invades, aid groups say

Preparations for relief called far short of needs for food, health, money

March 10, 2003|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As the Bush administration prepares to invade Iraq, deploying all the tools of war to the region, it is also sending water, food and medicine and bracing for a relief effort that could prove as challenging as the war itself.

If not more so.

President Bush has stressed that in case of war, the United States would provide emergency aid to Iraqi citizens, many of whom could lose access to food and water or decide to flee the country. But many envision a humanitarian crisis for which aid groups say they are ill-prepared.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could turn chemical or biological weapons on his own people. Refugees could cause confusion on battlefields and jam borders. A government ration program, the sole food source for most of the 23 million Iraqis, could collapse. And a war could spark lawlessness and revenge killings.

What is more, the United States might have few other countries with which to share the responsibility and cost of aiding and rebuilding Iraq.

"The potential magnitude of the crisis really gives one pause," says David McLachlan-Karr of the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Aside from stockpiling relief supplies for 1 million people, the United States is sending nearly 3 million emergency food rations and money for relief agencies to tend to civilians in need.

It is also training a 60-person civilian team made up of U.S. officials. The team would enter liberated areas in Iraq, assess humanitarian needs and act as a liaison between the military and civilian relief agencies.

But a humanitarian crisis could arise almost immediately once an invasion begins. It would fall to the military to provide the first emergency aid, because no relief agency would be in the war zones.

Bush administration officials say the military's leadership role would be brief and that civilian agencies would get in quickly once areas were secured and would take over relief efforts.

One Pentagon official said ships and planes have been reserved for relief supplies and that military officials are still trying to come up with "hard numbers" about how much aid would be needed. It is unknown which U.S. allies would offer humanitarian aid.

"In the event of a conflict, the U.S. government is devoting unprecedented attention to humanitarian relief," said Joseph J. Collins, deputy assistant secretary of defense.

But U.S. relief workers worry that it isn't enough.

"Yes, 1 million people - that's an impressive number," says Joel R. Charny of Refugees International, referring to the number who could be served by government supplies now in place. "But the U.S. is going to be on the line for caring for 23 million Iraqi citizens the minute the government is toppled."

A bitter vision

A war could mean devastating consequences for a country that has endured a decade of sanctions and two wars in 20 years. Nearly one-third of the children in central and southern Iraq are chronically malnourished, the United Nations says. And 5 million Iraqis lack safe water. Sixty percent of the country depends entirely on food rations - 460,000 tons a month - under the U.N. oil-for-food program.

Under one scenario envisioned by the United Nations - a two- to three-month conflict involving ground troops - war could lead to the collapse of the food program; a shutdown of water- and sewage-treatment plants, leaving up to half the population without drinkable water; up to 2 million people displaced; and up to 1.5 million fleeing to other countries.

"There's not a lot of fat in the system to deal with coping if there is a conflict," says McLachlan-Karr.

The U.S. war plan seeks to minimize damage to Iraq's infrastructure and civilians. Through leaflets and radio broadcasts, the Bush administration is trying to discourage Iraqis from fleeing their homes. And it plans to ask the U.N. Security Council to transfer, from Baghdad to the United Nations, the authority to buy food so the oil-for-food program can continue once Hussein's regime falls.

U.N. agencies have sent some supplies, including enough food for 250,000 people for 10 weeks and health kits for 900,000 women and children. But they are far from their goal. The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is ready to offer supplies for 7,000 wounded and could quickly mobilize aid for 500,000 displaced people.

Relief workers express optimism that neighboring countries would grant asylum to those who flee. Iran is preparing camps for 200,000 refugees. And Syria has expanded facilities in a camp originally built for refugees fleeing flash floods.

Jordan has begun rebuilding a water system. And Kuwaiti officials have said they plan to build a camp within the U.N.-controlled buffer zone with Iraq.

Turkey, which was unprepared for a flood of refugees in the Persian Gulf war in 1991, is considering sending troops into northern Iraq to prevent another refugee flow and keep Iraq's Kurdish enclave from trying to form a separate state and incite Turkey's Kurds.

Feeling unprepared

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