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Iraq: Britain's Charities Preparing New Humanitarian Aid

The arrival on 28 March of the British supply ship "Sir Galahad" in the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr marked the first significant delivery of food, water, and medicine since the U.S.-led war in Iraq began. As RFE/RL reports, British charities are now working together with the government to prepare new shipments of aid.

London, 31 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On 26 March, the British government announced it will allocate 30 million pounds (over $47 million) to major charity organizations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent to help deliver humanitarian aid to Iraq.

The statement came two days before the "Sir Galahad," a British Navy vessel, successfully docked in the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, delivering hundreds of tons of food, water, and medicine.

That aid -- originally destined for the city of Basra -- is instead being distributed piecemeal by British troops in Umm Qasr and neighboring towns which are more or less secure. But officials say it will be up to charities and international bodies to provide a steady flow of aid once larger areas of Iraq are stabilized.

The problem of delivering aid was also highlighted last week by an incident in which Red Crescent aid shipments to the border town of Safwan were mobbed by people tearing boxes off of trucks. With a humanitarian crisis rapidly mounting in Iraq, British charity workers are faced with a dilemma: What is the best way to deliver the aid, and how will the British government allocation help?

Mary-Louise Wayhill is the British humanitarian policy adviser for the International Red Cross, which has been active in Iraq for the past 20 years. She told RFE/RL the organization's immediate priorities in Iraq are providing safe drinking water and hospital care.

"So far the major thrust of their work in terms of assistance has been to try and secure the water supplies to the civilian population, particularly in Basra and other cities in the south, and also supply hospitals throughout Iraq with the equipment and supplies they need to keep functioning," Wayhill said.

Wayhill said it is crucial for the Red Cross and other aid organizations to maintain a presence in Iraq, and to remain neutral as the conflict continues. Regardless of the British participation in the U.S.-led war, the special government allocation, she said, is welcome, and will be used to prepare for the consequences of the war both inside and outside Iraq.

"The British government grant was in response to appeals issued both by the International Committee of the Red Cross for work inside Iraq, and for the Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for work outside Iraq, in the event of large-scale refugee outflows from the conflict. It is still not clear whether there will be significant outflows or whether people will be displaced inside. So the money will be used to respond to the crisis, as and when it develops, and to identify humanitarian needs and then to reach those in need much more quickly," Wayhill said.

Other charities that have been active in Iraq include the international Save the Children Fund. Carolyne Culver is the press officer for Save the Children's Middle Eastern operations. She told RFE/RL the charity has been active in northern Iraq since 1991, engaging in post-Gulf War reconstruction and working to secure education, social work and child protection programs in the region.

Culver described how the charity has shifted its focus in preparation for the war: "We are obviously focused now on the current emergency and providing for families who have been displaced from their homes within the north of Iraq. And we have already began to distribute blankets, fuel and children's clothing, and other emergency essentials to those families, many of whom have traveled from the center and south of Iraq and have arrived in the north with no family contacts there and very few personal belongings. This week, we have been told by the [British] Department for International Development that we will receive half-a-million pounds [$790,000] to help with our work in northern Iraq, and we are very pleased with this."

Culver added, however, that money will remain a problem for both those charities working in Iraq and others. "We are very concerned that the British Treasury has given no money to the Department for International Development for humanitarian work in Iraq. The money we -- and other agencies, like the Red Cross -- are receiving has come solely from the emergency contingency reserve of the department for International Development and that means that that department is left with very few resources to deal with other crises. So we are obviously very concerned about that, because we do not want other emergencies to be forgotten," Culver said.