Bush says America is poised to unleash `great compassion'

Humanitarian aid ready but delivery is delayed by unexpected resistance

War In Iraq

March 26, 2003|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Soon, President Bush said yesterday, the Iraqi people would see "the great compassion" of the United States and other nations that have pledged to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians in need of food, water, medicine or shelter.

But, as U.S. and British troops battle their way to Baghdad, the continued deadly fighting in southern Iraq has delayed such relief, with some aid workers saying it could be days, if not weeks, before the region is safe enough for anyone but the military to enter.

The Bush administration has made humanitarian aid a linchpin of its campaign in Iraq, a crucial element of the war intended to foster the support and good will of Iraqi citizens and convince them the United States is trying to liberate them, not take over their country. On Sunday, Bush promised that relief supplies would begin flowing by yesterday.

But for now, continued fighting and Iraqi-laid mines in the port at Umm Qasr, gateway to the country from the Persian Gulf, make entry to Iraq perilous.

Relief supplies remain in warehouses or on ships in the region. And the U.S. government's disaster relief team, as well as other international aid workers, are in a holding pattern, mostly in Kuwait City.

The most dire humanitarian situation is in the embattled southern city of Basra. Iraq's second-largest city with more than 1 million people, it has gone without water and electricity since late last week.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that U.S. and British troops, who were sweeping the Umm Qasr harbor for mines, were "a day or two away" from declaring it safe and making way for shipments of relief supplies.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday that the people in Basra "cannot afford to go without electricity or water for long."

Maj. Gen. Victor E. Renuart, director of operations at U.S. Central Command in Qatar, said yesterday, "We, too, believe that it's been a real crisis or humanitarian issue that has been caused by the Iraqi regime."

He said that, in addition to clearing the waterway of mines, U.S. troops were working with Kuwaiti officials to install a fresh water pipeline from Kuwait to the Iraqi border, and the International Red Cross has been able to restore a water supply to 40 percent of the city.

"We also believe that we'll be able to flow humanitarian aid into that port in a very short time," he said.

Faced with questions yesterday about the delay of the much-promised humanitarian aid, administration officials defended the U.S. effort and blamed the Iraqi government for impeding the process by putting mines in the waterways.

"There's a massive stockpile that stands by and ready," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "And what is at stake here is the mining of the harbor that was done by the Iraqis, which only serves, once again, as a reminder of how Iraq is willing to starve its own people to accomplish its military aims. ...

"We stand ready, willing and able. The mines need to be moved. And the mines will be moved. The people will be fed."

He said a British ship with 76,000 tons of food and 1,500 tons of water and two Australian shipments of wheat were waiting to enter the shipping channel once it was cleared.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted that the vast flight of refugees predicted by the United Nations has not materialized. "Why is that?" he said at a Pentagon briefing. "It is because there is not a humanitarian disaster at the present time in those areas."

He also said that U.S. troops are supplied with some emergency food rations, water and medicine that they can distribute to Iraqis on a case-by-case basis if they see a need.

But the major humanitarian effort has yet to begin.

As outlined in the administration's war plan, the government's 62-member disaster response team is poised to enter a region or city such as Basra, along with the military's civil affairs units, after it has been secured.

Once there, they are to assess the humanitarian needs of the area and contract with private aid organizations to provide relief.

So far, the government's disaster response team is still in Kuwait City.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which has deployed the response team, has stockpiled 130,000 tons of food in the Persian Gulf region along with water-purification equipment sufficient to supply 1 million people.

Nongovernmental aid groups, all of which have security personnel whose job it is to determine when it is safe for workers to go into a region, are eager to start supplying aid.

But they are also concerned about safety and, what's more, don't want coalition forces to go in with guns blazing and risk civilian lives in their haste to secure a region.

"There is a difficult needle to thread here," said Sid Balman Jr., a spokesman for InterAction, an alliance of 160 private aid groups, "in the balance between security that will allow the relief to go in on the one hand, and minimizing civilian casualties on the other hand."

He said the water situation in Basra is "severe" but not yet at the crisis stage. Still, many private relief organizations say a disaster could develop quickly if the war continues for weeks and outside groups are not able to bring in food, water and supplies.

Nearly two-thirds of Iraq's 24 million people relied on food rations distributed by the United Nations' oil-for-food program. The program ceased operating last week when 1,000 U.N. workers left the country.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice went to New York yesterday to discuss humanitarian issues with Annan. The secretary-general has said the United Nations wants to resume humanitarian aid to Iraq. But U.N. plans to restart the oil-for-food program have broken down as Security Council members are split on who would administer the program.

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