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Iraq: UN Preparing For Return Of First Humanitarian Team

  • Robert McMahon

United Nations humanitarian officials still describe the situation in many Iraqi cities as volatile, but they are steadily increasing deliveries of food, water, and medicine into Iraq. Some supply shipments -- handled by Iraqi national staff -- are under way from Turkey, Kuwait, and Iran, and the World Food Program is preparing for massive shipments next month. Relief groups cite some improvement in security at hospitals provided by U.S.-led coalition forces, but they are pressing for more stability.

United Nations, 16 April 2008 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations is preparing to return its first team of international staff to Iraq tomorrow and is already directing shipments from at least three different neighboring countries.

The UN team is now in Cyprus, waiting for air-corridor clearance from U.S.-led coalition forces. Its 30 experts plan to visit the northern provinces of Dahuk, Arbil, and Sulaymaniyah to assess food, water, health-care, and de-mining needs.

They would be the first of about 700 international UN staff to return. They withdrew nearly one month ago ahead of the U.S.-led campaign to oust the Iraqi regime, suspending activities ranging from the oil-for-food program to weapons inspections. An estimated 3,400 Iraqis still employed by the UN have been carrying on work with available supplies.

The UN's assessment of safety inside Iraq is being watched closely by about 70 nongovernmental humanitarian groups currently in Jordan who are seeking security assurances before heading in.

Security lapses following the collapse of the regime continue to prevent international agencies from returning in force, said Oliver Ulich, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in New York. "[The] security situation is still, of course, extremely volatile, particularly in many areas with high concentrations of population. [In] Baghdad, we just heard today, many NGOs and the [International Committee of the Red Cross] even, are still unable to distribute supplies that they do have because of the insecurity there," Ulich said.

But relief supplies are moving into Iraq at an accelerated pace. Agencies such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Program have used commercial trucks to reach cities in the north and south.

UNICEF has been delivering clean water to Umm Qasr for the past 10 days and a convoy of trucks carrying 120,000 liters of water is due to cross from Iran en route to Iraq's Al-Faw peninsula today.

Ulich told RFE/RL that UN officials are planning to step up security-assessment missions in more areas that seem to be secure. And in major population centers like Baghdad, groups like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders report that coalition forces have started to provide security at a growing number of hospitals that had been threatened by looters.

UN and Red Cross officials have repeatedly cited the responsibility of occupying powers for the welfare of civilians. In response to the complaints about widespread looting in the past week, the U.S. military has said its forces were preoccupied with completing combat missions.

U.S. President George W. Bush said yesterday that the focus is now shifting to humanitarian care. "We are beginning the difficult work of helping Iraqis to build a free and stable country. The immediate task involves establishing order as well as delivering food and water and medicines," he said.

So far the main area of concern appears to be health care. The World Health Organization says there are severe problems in many parts of the country, especially shortage of supplies and lack of security for health-care workers.

Health experts are concerned about outbreaks of diarrhea caused by a combination of a lack of clean water, rising temperatures, and severe problems in the sanitation system due in part to the lack of electricity.

Doctors Without Borders, one of the few nongovernmental organizations active in Iraq during the war, had suspended its operations for nine days when two staffers went missing. They were later recovered uninjured.

The director of the organization's U.S. office, Nicolas de Torrente, told RFE/RL that some hospitals have been overwhelmed with a range of cases, ranging from minor to major. He said some patients were shell-shocked or suffering from the psychological consequences of the war.

De Torrente described the current predicament: "The problem here is the fact that a medical system that was effective in Iraq before the conflict is now somewhat in disarray. Some hospitals have been looted. In others, staff, administrative staff, are no longer there and medical staff are no longer reporting to duty. There's a lack of certain critical supplies, especially for surgery in a number of places and there's a very precarious situation concerning electricity and water supply in some of the hospitals."

So far, there has not been a major problem with population movements or food supplies. After initial reports of 250,000 internally displaced persons in the north, many have now returned home.

In the south and center of the country, Iraqi authorities distributed extra food through the oil-for-food system in advance of the war, reaching about 60 percent of the population.

But Ulich, the OCHA spokesman, said those supplies will start to dwindle soon. "We know that by some time next month we will have to ship in enormous quantities because the household supplies will start running out. Right now, the reason why there's no immediate food crisis is because people still have food at home for the most part. The problem is that these food supplies will run out unless the ration system is restarted very soon," he said.

The World Food Program is preparing to resurrect the 44,000 points of distribution used under the oil-for-food program to help provide about 480,000 tons of food per month in the initial postwar period.

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