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Friday, March 21

Red tape, sandstorms hampering plans to aid Iraqi refugees

By Sergio Bustos | GNS

WASHINGTON - A slow but rising tide of some 500 Iraqi refugees began arriving this week at a camp being established inside neighboring Jordan - the first wave of people to flee war-torn Iraq.

"The flow is starting," said Kelly Miller, director of World Concern, a Seattle-based relief agency.

His organization is working with other relief agencies to build the refugee camp along the border.

Miller said the camp would be able to feed and house 20,000 people but could be forced to accommodate as many as 60,000.

As the U.S.-led war on Iraq intensifies daily, World Concern and other relief agencies in and around Iraq already are struggling to deal with the humanitarian crisis. And some complain the U.S. government is keeping them from doing their job.

"We are effectively being shut out of central and southern Iraq, and the rules are still restrictive for Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq," said George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee, one of the world?s largest relief agencies.

He said aid-related rules and regulations in neighboring Iran also are cumbersome. Iran is expected to receive most of the Iraqi refugees fleeing the war.

"Even in the middle of a looming humanitarian crisis, aid organizations are subject to rules that rival the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) code in complexity," he said. "The amount of red tape is completely counterproductive. President Bush can resolve the problem with the stroke of a pen."

U.S. officials said they would lift such restrictions as soon as possible.

"When the situation on the ground permits, the humanitarian activities will go forward promptly," said Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Speaking directly to the Iraqi people, Rumsfeld advised them to stay in their homes and avoid military installations. "Arrangements are being made to care for refugees and displaced persons inside of Iraq," he promised.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is committing up to $105 million to the United Nations and other international organizations to aid Iraq. The money includes $60 million to the World Food Program, $21 million to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and $10 million for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

U.S. officials also said this week they would release 200,000 metric tons of wheat and make available an additional 400,000 tons of wheat, if necessary.

President Bush also opened the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in the White House, which is charged with assembling detailed plans for a post-war Iraq.

European leaders have pledged to contribute to the aid effort. The European Commission on Friday requested 79 million euros - about $83.2 million - from the commission's emergency budget reserve. That brings to 100 million euros - roughly $105 million - the amount of money they have committed to the impending humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

Even before the war, Iraq?s people were suffering as a result of longstanding U.N. sanctions and Saddam Hussein?s dictatorship.

One in eight children in Iraq die before age five and about 6 million - or 25 percent of all children in Iraq - are born underweight. About two-thirds of the population depends on the government for food.

UNICEF said Friday the cost of assisting Iraq's 12 million children could be more than $100 million.

For now, simply setting up shop is the immediate challenge facing humanitarian groups like World Concern.

Miller, the World Concern director, said Friday in a statement from Jordan that relief workers had told him sandstorms caused by high winds were slowing efforts to finish the refugee camp.

"Tents they try to get set up get blown away by the wind," Miller said. "Conditions are pretty harsh."