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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Aid Efforts Into Southern Iraq Being Stepped Up

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel is near the Iraqi border in northern Kuwait two days after being forced out of southern Iraq because of the region's deteriorating security situation. He files this report on efforts to get humanitarian aid to the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.

Near the Iraqi border, northern Kuwait; 26 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Efforts to bring humanitarian aid into the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr by sea and by road are being stepped up as the town is now fully secured after the end of fighting three days ago. I spent several hours today at the Kuwaiti border a stone's throw from Umm Qasr to see how plans to use the port as the principal distribution point for aid in southern Iraq are proceeding.

Most of the traffic on the road into Umm Qasr today was made up of military convoys bringing in fresh British troops to relieve the units who captured the city after mopping up stubborn pockets of resistance there earlier in the week.

But border guards told me that large numbers of trucks bringing aid coordinated by the Kuwaiti government had crossed into the port in the morning. That follows a first convoy that delivered an estimated $10 million worth of water, food, and other supplies to Umm Qasr yesterday.

A British naval ship, the "Sir Galahad," carrying more than 300 tons of food and water is expected to be unloaded in Umm Qasr after the port is cleared of mines, possibly as early as today. The road and sea shipments come as international concern mounts that a major new humanitarian crisis could be produced by the war in Iraq.

The United Nations today called on donor states to contribute $1 billion for an emergency relief fund. That is the largest single request to donors in the organization's history.

UN officials are particularly concerned about the situation in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where some 60 percent of the city's 1.2 million people have been without clean water since 21 March, when a water-purification plant went out of service amid fighting. There are fears that that situation could be repeated elsewhere should the war be lengthy.

Here in Umm Qasr, British engineers were busy today laying a water pipeline to begin pumping in drinking water from Kuwait by 30 March.

Staff Sergeant Tony Black of the Royal Engineers described the time line this way: "We started planning the project two days ago, and we will be finished by midnight on the 29th of March and, hopefully, distribute water in the early hours on the 30th of March."

Black said that his unit began laying the pipe two days ago to bring in water from a recently abandoned UN base near the border. The pipeline, extending 3 kilometers, is intended to deliver 2,000 cubic meters of water to Umm Qasr per day.

Inside Umm Qasr, another engineering unit is constructing a water-distribution point for use by civilians and British forces. The water-distribution point is easily accessible by road from other parts of southern Iraq because the Iraqi highway system is modern and -- except where damaged by fighting -- in good condition.