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Iraq: UN Agencies Scramble To Restore Iraqi Aid System

  • Robert McMahon

United Nations humanitarian experts for Iraq say the Security Council resolution reviving the oil-for-food program leaves them little time to process contracts for emergency aid. That means that within another month, millions of Iraqis could be dependent for aid on either authorities in control of the country or from an ad hoc coalition of UN agencies and nongovernmental groups. Meanwhile, humanitarian concerns are mounting, especially over lack of water and electricity.

United Nations, 2 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Food and water have begun arriving in the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, and the first shipments of wartime aid from the United Nations have been delivered to Kurdish-controlled areas in the north.

But UN humanitarian officials are growing anxious about their ability to meet the needs of the majority of Iraq's population in the weeks ahead. Food stockpiles for most Iraqis are expected to last until May. UN officials have launched multiple efforts to ensure that reliable flows of food and other aid are available at that time.

The first aim, they say, is restoring the effectiveness of the oil-for-food program, which feeds 16 million Iraqis. The program, the largest in UN history, was suspended two weeks ago ahead of the U.S.-led military strikes on Iraq. The UN Security Council revived it on 28 March and gave UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan the power to revise contracts to meet humanitarian needs under special conditions.

An expert at the UN's World Food Program (WFP), Phillip Ward, told reporters at UN headquarters yesterday that the oil-for-food program must be restored as the main method of food delivery. "The public food-distribution system that has been in place in Iraq is actually the most effective way of getting food to the entire population. In fact, it is the only way that exists right now in the country, and that is why we have made our plans around supporting that public food-distribution system," Ward said.

But the Security Council resolution reviving that system is valid for only 45 days. That has placed a burden on UN humanitarian agencies, which must contact suppliers with whom aid contracts have already been signed to expedite their shipments.

UN officials have identified more than 450 contracts for medicine, food, water, and sanitation supplies as priorities for shipments. The contracts are held by suppliers from about 40 countries.

Ward, whose agency is responsible for about one-third of those contracts, said the WFP is coping with an "enormous" task under the time constraints. "We're working very much against the clock here in terms of trying to make sure that we are able to contact those suppliers and see how many of them can deliver within this very short time period that we've been given," Ward said.

Traditionally, the Iraqi government ran most of the oil-for-food program, which was monitored by the United Nations. It was the responsibility of Iraqi buyers and suppliers to work out contracts for goods. Now, UN officials must seek to confirm contracts with suppliers and secure a rushed delivery of hundreds of millions of dollars in goods, says Darko Mocibob, program officer for the UN's Office of the Iraq Program. "We are hoping that we will get some positive responses from most of them, but even if they can still ship, that doesn't mean they can ship within 45 days," Mocibob said.

In anticipation of delays to the oil-for-food program, UN humanitarian agencies have launched an appeal for $2.2 billion in aid for Iraq. This would allow UN agencies to purchase items from the region and allow them to make rapid deliveries of food and other supplies.

So far, say UN officials, the response has been encouraging. More than $800 million has been pledged, most of it from the United States and Britain, which are leading a coalition to oust the government of Saddam Hussein, and the European Union.

The council resolution passed on 28 March reaffirmed that the main obligation for caring for Iraqi citizens rests with the U.S.-led coalition. An official with the UN's Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Oliver Ulich, told reporters the occupying powers must provide law and order essential to humanitarian efforts. "In terms of creating an environment where we can operate independently and provide assistance to those who need it most, that is very much the responsibility of the authority that controls the area where we want to provide assistance," Ulich said.

Ulich said Annan recently issued guidelines on how UN personnel should interact with military personnel. They stress that UN humanitarian aid should be provided independently, impartially, and under strictly civilian control. "Any use of military assets for the distribution of humanitarian supplies is always very much a last resort. We will do everything we can to work through NGOs, the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], and other civilian channels to ensure the distribution of supplies," Ulich said.

Up to this point, security has been seen as too risky for aid groups to begin large-scale shipments into Iraq's interior. A UN security team is in Umm Qasr -- Iraq's only deepwater port -- to determine whether humanitarian workers can return. The port was still being cleared of mines yesterday and is closed to commercial operations. Only one aid ship, Britain's "Sir Galahad," has so far been able to dock at Umm Qasr.

By way of comparison, when U.S.-led forces moved against Afghanistan's Taliban regime in autumn 2001, UN humanitarian operations did not fully return for two months. But nongovernmental relief organizations were active in Afghanistan -- there are few in southern and central Iraq -- and commercial truckers were willing to transport food supplies across the border from Pakistan.

In coalition-controlled zones in Iraq, meanwhile, some aid has been distributed by troops, such as extra ration packs, bottles of water, and medical care. UN officials are eager to avoid a repeat of the chaotic scene last week when two truck shipments from the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society arrived at a border town and were overwhelmed by Iraqis.

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