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Iraq Journals

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Tuesday, March 4

Humanitarian crisis looms in Iraq

By John Yaukey

WASHINGTON — A war with Iraq could leave in its wake a massive humanitarian crisis complicated by refugee flows and widespread contamination by chemical and biological weapons, say officials from aid agencies preparing to enter Iraq after a possible conflict.

Iraqis, who largely rely on the government for their food, would be left with only scant reserves once Baghdad collapses.

The humanitarian aid network currently in Iraq is nowhere near large enough to fill the vacuum that would be left by the fall of the government. What‘s more, most aid workers will be evacuated in the event of a war.

"It could rank among the most severe humanitarian situations the world has faced in recent times," said Sid Balman Jr., spokesman for Washington-based InterAction, an umbrella organization that represents aid agencies. "Add chemical or biological weapons to the picture, and all bets are off."

Bush administration officials have been releasing details of plans to provide food and other aid to millions of Iraqis immediately after any offensive against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. That plan includes enlisting help from the vast network of nongovernmental aid organizations.

"U.S. postwar responsibilities will not be easy to fulfill and the United States by no means wishes to tackle them alone," Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith recently told lawmakers. "We‘ll encourage contributions and participation from coalition partners, nongovernmental organizations, the U.N. (United Nations) and other international organizations."

In January, the Bush administration created the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, charged with establishing links to the humanitarian community.

"We describe it as an ‘expeditionary‘ office," Feith said, meaning it is meant to work quickly.

Many aid groups, however, say outreach from the administration has been slow, leaving little time to plan for the daunting task of feeding and caring for millions of Iraqis.

"It‘s a little late in the day for them to be stepping up to this problem," Balman said.

Logistical collapse

Perhaps the most pressing fear stems from Iraq‘s fragile food and medical infrastructure, built after the Persian Gulf War.

According to InterAction and other aid agencies:

— At least 16 million Iraqis — 60 percent of the population — rely solely on food distributed through the government. A war would initially collapse that network.

— About 10 million Iraqis — 5.2 million of them children — will need immediate food aid once a war begins.

— Iraq has few reserves to fall back on, having endured 12 years of international economic sanctions.

— Aid workers evacuated before the war might be slowed significantly or prevented altogether from re-entering some parts of Iraq that might be contaminated by chemical or biological weapons.

— War could create as many as 1.5 million refugees, adding to the already 1 million Iraqis without homes. A heavy refugee flow into neighboring countries, especially regional U.S. allies such as Jordan and Turkey, could destabilize them and put even more pressure on their already fragile economies.

If these countries close their borders to Iraqi refugees, "border camps" are likely to spring up, forcing aid workers to deal with far-flung populations that have little to sustain them.

Military aid

Separate from its work with the aid agencies, the administration has plans to mobilize U.S. forces to deliver food and medicine before combat subsides.

"Our immediate objective will be to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians," said Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs.

The strategy is to make Iraqis instantly feel better off than they felt under Saddam.

That approach worked with some success in Afghanistan, where throngs of Afghans cheered the fall of the repressive Taliban regime after the U.S. offensive there at the end of 2001.

But this could be considerably more difficult in Iraq if Saddam destroys his oil fields — as he did in Kuwait during the gulf war — and contaminates vital infrastructure with chemical and biological agents, leaving Iraq an environmental wasteland.