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Iraq: International Aid Slow To Enter Country Amid Security Uncertainties

The war in Iraq is raising concerns that much of the population could soon face urgent shortages of water and food. But international aid agencies still have not begun transporting supplies into the country, leaving most of southern Iraq dependent on food stockpiled before the conflict began over two weeks ago. RFE/RL reports on what is holding up the aid deliveries.

Kuwait City, 4 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Substantial international aid has yet to begin flowing into southern Iraq as shaky security in the area delays plans to set up distribution facilities.

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Edna Savage, told our correspondent yesterday that very little aid has gone into Iraq since the war began 16 days ago. He said the UN has put off any decision to start shipments until it can make its own security assessment -- a process that finally began early this week. "Very little aid has gone in from the UN aid agencies because the permission has not been given by New York that it's safe to go in at this moment in time," Savage said.

The UNHCR spokeswoman said that a first security-assessment team went to the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, just across the Kuwaiti border, on 1 April and sent a report to New York. The contents of the report are confidential and it is not known when the UN will make a decision based on the team's recommendations.

The UN evaluation group only visited Umm Qasr, which was declared secure by British forces over a week ago. A first British military ship offloaded hundreds of tons of water and other supplies at the port on 28 March in what so far has been the sole use of the facility to deliver other than military material into Iraq.

Security continues to be a persistent problem throughout southern Iraq, where allied troops mostly have secured roads for convoys but have not extended their control into towns. In one measure of the problem, U.S. forces recently built a road detour around the Iraqi border town of Safwan, which straddles the principal highway going north from Kuwait. The detour allows convoys to partially bypass Safwan's downtown area, where snipers have sometimes hid in buildings to fire at passing cars.

Roads are considered particularly unsafe during the night, when members of Saddam Fedayeen are reported to infiltrate into occupied areas dressed in civilian clothing. The Fedayeen are paramilitary troops sworn to fight to the death for the regime. Allied forces secure major highways during the day with heavily armored mobile units.

But while security remains the aid workers' principal worry, it is just one of several factors that appear to be slowing down their ability to get supplies into southern Iraq. Another problem is reported to be tension between the U.S. military and UN-affiliated aid agencies over which party will determine how and where aid is distributed.

Both Washington and London see speedy delivery of aid as crucial to persuade Iraqis to back the war to oust Saddam Hussein. But the allies and nongovernmental agencies have yet to reach agreements on how to coordinate their efforts.

The United States Agency for International Development has earmarked millions of dollars for food aid to Iraq, much of it to be distributed through major NGOs and possibly with the participation of the U.S. military. But many aid officials say they do not want to be seen as working too closely with the military for fear of compromising their worldwide image as independent organizations.

In a sign that Washington may have little patience for working out cooperation agreements in the middle of a military offensive, U.S. officials have said that the Iraqi's population's immediate needs will be met by the allied forces.

Washington also has said that once Saddam Hussein is defeated the U.S. will install an occupation government to begin the process of transforming Iraq into a more democratic state. American officials have yet to say publicly to what extent the UN might be involved in any post-Saddam interim administration, adding further uncertainty to the international agencies' future role in Iraq.

The UN has appealed to donor nations for $2.2 billion to fund humanitarian aid programs for Iraq -- the largest single donation request in the organization's history.

Still, if starting the aid flow is beset by security and political challenges, UN aid workers have gained some time for solving them because no humanitarian disaster in Iraq appears to be immediately in the offing. Many aid experts say that most people in southern Iraq appear to have enough food -- and access to water -- to stave off any crisis for at least a couple of weeks more.

Savage said that aid officials now estimate that food deliveries can be delayed for seven to ten days without risks of shortfalls. "Because of the amount of food that is in southern Iraq, people have asked that a seven- to 10-day hold be put on food that is not required. The urgent thing is water -- and that is not critical either, but it is more required than the food," she said.

The UNHCR spokeswoman said that agencies hope to solve any urgent water shortages by shipping in bottled water from Kuwait and other neighboring countries. The UN children's agency, UNICEF, sent a first three truck-fulls of water into southern Iraq on 31 March and plans to increase that number to 40 shortly. The deliveries come as UNICEF officials say that people in some towns have been forced to drink dirty water due to disruptions of normal water services.

International aid workers say they have now partly solved an urgent water problem in Basra after a pumping station there stopped functioning last week amid the fighting. Technicians from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) negotiated with both Iraqi and allied force to enter the city and restore electricity to the pumping station early this week. The action averts a water crisis which threatened many of Basra's 1.7 million inhabitants.

Also, two trucks left Kuwait for Basra today carrying ICRC medical aid. The supplies are destined for hospitals in the southern city that are dealing with the war wounded.

But if some experts are now feeling optimistic that water and food supplies are sufficient to avoid immediate shortfalls, others warn that the supplies for individual families may be less than they appear.

The spokeswoman in Kuwait City for the UN's World Food Program (WFP), Antonia Paradella, estimated that southern Iraq has enough food stockpiled to last through this month. But she said that hard-pressed families routinely sell some of their food stocks to raise money to buy other necessities like medicine. She said that raises the risk that some people will run out of food well before April ends.

"The Iraqi population has been impoverished after 12 years of sanctions. This means that for 60 percent of the population, or 16 million people, the food rations they received from the government that is mostly coming from the oil-for-food program is the only source of income those families have," Paradella said.

She added, "This means that an average monthly ration actually lasts 21 days, because if the family has any urgent needs, such as medical care or going to a doctor or something absolutely essential, they will sell part of their ration."

When international agencies finally do begin sending in aid, they will face a daunting distribution challenge due to the disruption of normal life in Iraq during the war.

To assure food reaches needy people across the country, UN workers say they hope to revive the ration-card system which the Iraqi government set up to distribute goods like wheat that Baghdad purchased under the UN-approved oil-for-food program. That system relied upon some 44,000 so-called "food and flour" agents who doled out staples at the neighborhood level.

However, the government's distribution system was entirely administered through the ruling Ba'ath Party and that structure is about to be severely degraded. U.S. and British soldiers are expected to be tasked with hunting down top members of the Ba'ath Party as part of the process of regime change. The arrests of top local party officials will mean substitute officials must be appointed before any new aid distribution system can function smoothly.

Aid deliveries are also likely to hampered by infrastructure problems should the war badly damage railway hubs and mills. In the past, Iraq received most of its wheat shipments in Umm Qasr. The wheat was then transported by rail from Basra to mills throughout the country, where it was ground into flour.

Today, UN officials say they are unable to move wheat beyond Umm Qasr because railway lines run through battle zones and because most railway cars have been withdrawn to Baghdad.

As one result, an Australian ship carrying 100,000 tons of wheat remains at sea in the Persian Gulf unable to deliver its food to the Iraqi port or anywhere else. The nearest landfall with mills and road connections to Iraq is Kuwait, but the Kuwaiti ports do not have sufficiently deep water to assure the heavily laden ship will not run aground.

The WFP is now considering partially offloading the ship at sea in the coming days so that it can be diverted to the emirate and finally make its delivery.