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Iraq: UN Planning Intensifies For Humanitarian Aid In Case Of War

  • Robert McMahon

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has convened a meeting with Security Council members to discuss preparations for humanitarian relief in the event of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. Officials are concerned that Iraq's infrastructure, already fragile after 12 years of UN sanctions, will collapse in the early period of any war. Human rights and humanitarian groups have criticized the secrecy around contingency planning. U.S. officials, meanwhile, say they would make sure humanitarian relief flows rapidly to Iraqi civilians.

United Nations, 14 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Amid intensifying debate over Iraq's disarmament process, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has briefed UN Security Council members on crisis planning for Iraqi civilians in case the country is plunged into war.

Annan and some of his top advisers met in private yesterday with representatives of the 15 Security Council member states to discuss the status of UN contingency planning for Iraq's possible humanitarian needs.

The informal meeting came ahead of today's key briefing by the top two UN weapons inspectors about the level of Iraqi compliance with UN monitors. The United States is expected to use any negative assessments by Hans Blix or Mohammad el-Baradei to bolster its case that Iraq is in breach of its disarmament obligations and should face the "serious consequences" threatened in a November Security Council resolution.

A majority of council states, led by France, have expressed support for continuing inspections.

The UN's emergency-relief coordinator, Kenzo Oshima, told reporters later that Annan still believes inspections can work to disarm Iraq peacefully. But UN officials, Oshima said, have a responsibility to make contingency plans in case of war. "We have to recognize that conflict might occur and might cause terrible loss and suffering to the Iraqi people. So we need to take prudent preparatory measures to address the potential humanitarian impact of a conflict," Oshima said.

Among the current planning assumptions shared with council members, Oshima said, were estimates that 2 million people could become internally displaced in Iraq in the event of armed conflict. There is also the potential, he said, for between 600,000 and 1.5 million refugees.

Oshima said up to 10 million people may require food assistance during and immediately after the start of conflict, while up to half of the population may be without access to potable water.

UN officials are especially alarmed about disruptions to the food-rationing system set up through the UN's oil-for-food program, which uses Iraqi oil revenues to provide humanitarian goods to civilians. The country has been subject to sweeping UN sanctions imposed after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Iraq's central and southern regions rely on government rations through the program and would be hit particularly hard by disruptions caused by conflict. Hundreds of international staff would be forced to evacuate at the onset of conflict, Oshima said, and the absence of nongovernmental aid groups in much of the country is expected to cause severe food-distribution problems. "This would be a huge, a gigantic task because, under the current system, quantities of food that are distributed through the government distribution system [are] enormous -- 460,000 tons per month of food alone -- and this is almost four times the largest quantity we were able to deliver during the Afghanistan crisis," Oshima said.

Oshima said UN officials have increased their request for contingency funds from $37 million to $120 million.

If the U.S.-led coalition mounts an attack on Iraq and establishes military control, it would have responsibilities under international law to provide for the humanitarian needs of Iraqis. Oshima said there has been no detailed coordination so far between U.S. military authorities and UN relief officials on any Iraqi humanitarian scenario.

But U.S. officials say Washington is paying close attention to planning Iraqi relief. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman told a U.S. Senate hearing earlier this week (http://www.state.gov/p/17616.htm) that the United States plans to be in a position to help the country in the immediate aftermath of any combat operations.

AP quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying the United States is already storing millions of dollars in food and medical supplies in warehouses in Italy and Kuwait. The report said the United States plans to build a large humanitarian coordination center in Kuwait near the Iraqi border.

U.S. President George W. Bush yesterday vowed to provide rapid relief to Iraqis in the event of military action. He reiterated that Washington's intention is to free the Iraqi people from a repressive regime.

Bush told U.S. service members at a naval station in Florida: "America's military fights not to conquer but to liberate. In case of conflict, this great nation is already putting plans and supplies into place so that food and other humanitarian relief will flow quickly to the Iraqi people."

But a U.S.-based group that recently studied conditions in Iraq, the Center for Economic and Social Rights, says the costs of such a war will be unacceptably high in terms of the humanitarian consequences.

The director of the center, Roger Normand, told a news briefing at the United Nations yesterday that innocent Iraqis, weakened by years of sanctions, will bear an extraordinary burden in any military campaign. "There will be a humanitarian disaster in the event of war," he said. "The United Nations and relief agencies are not prepared to handle this disaster. The Iraqi population is far more vulnerable than it was in 1991, due to 12 years of sanctions and due to a reliance for survival on the oil-for-food program," Normand said.

The prominent watchdog group Human Rights Watch this week released a report (http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/mena/iraq021203.htm) in which it also describes the potential for a humanitarian disaster in Iraq. It urges any governments involved in a conflict in Iraq to meet their obligations under humanitarian law.

The report says Iraq's problems are aggravated by Baghdad's own policy of forced displacement. It cites the northern city of Kirkuk, where about 120,000 Iraqis have been displaced by the government's forced "Arabization" campaign. Overall, the UN estimates that there are currently 1.1 million displaced Iraqis and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, many of them in Iran.

Yusuf Hassan, a spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, told RFE/RL that Iraq's neighbors have been most affected by Iraqi refugee flows since the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Hassan said that war caused 1.7 million Iraqis to flee the country, many to Turkey, although a resettlement camp of several thousand former Iraqi soldiers remains in Saudi Arabia.

Hassan said the situation is starting to look similar to that in Afghanistan during the past two decades, when Iran and Pakistan absorbed most of the refugee flow. "Iraqis have the same problem," Hassan said. "Many countries are denying them access. There have been some generous [responses] from the neighboring countries, but they do shoulder a huge burden, given their poor economic conditions and their own problems."

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers has written to Iraq's neighbors to remind them of their responsibility to assist any people who might flee Iraq. The agency has also begun coordinating its plans with the International Federation of Red Crescent Societies, which operates in those countries.

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