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Tuesday, March 25

U.S. officials ready to provide humanitarian aid to Iraq

By Sergio Bustos and Derrick DePledge | GNS

WASHINGTON -The largest disaster relief team in U.S. history is being assembled to coordinate humanitarian aid in Iraq and is prepared to move into the country within 24 hours of receiving the go-ahead from military authorities, officials said Tuesday.

The Disaster Assistance Response Team will include more than 60 humanitarian assistance experts from a slew of U.S. government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services, said Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Natsios' office is managing the massive aid campaign. It is temporarily headquartered in Kuwait City and plans to place three mobile field offices in Iraq.

``We can act almost immediately,'' Natsios said.

The agency has 610,000 tons of food on hand, enough equipment to provide potable water for up to 1 million people, and $16 million worth of blankets, first-aid kits and other supplies, he said.

Food is the biggest worry for humanitarian agencies, because six in 10 Iraqis depend entirely on food rations distributed by the Iraqi government. The average Iraqi family in this country of 24 million people has enough food to last one month.

For now, the humanitarian mission is on hold. Scattered but troublesome Iraqi resistance in southern Iraq, particularly in Basra, has made it too dangerous for coalition forces and humanitarian workers to establish a secure pathway for supplies.

Advancing coalition ground forces have brought food, water and medical supplies into Iraq, but are still one or two days away from clearing mines in the waters near the southern port of Umm Qasr, which will likely be the major entry point for early humanitarian relief.

British and Australian supply ships are waiting in the Persian Gulf, and coalition forces and the government of Kuwait are working on a pipeline to bring fresh water from Kuwait into Umm Qasr, where, eventually, it can be trucked to Basra and other regions.

The Pentagon's war plan was designed to get coalition forces to Baghdad as soon as possible, so troops quickly moved through southern Iraq, bypassing cities such as Basra, on their march toward the capital. British forces have been assigned the task of defending the rear of the attack, and have had to contend with sporadic but deadly guerilla resistance around Basra and Umm Qasr.

Some military analysts have questioned the Pentagon's strategy, arguing that coalition forces are spread too thin, leaving the military supply line between Kuwait and advancing troops near Baghdad susceptible to ambush by pockets of Iraqi soldiers.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday that most of the setbacks have involved treachery by Iraqi soldiers, who have reportedly dressed as civilians and feigned surrender before attacking coalition troops.

Coalition forces, he said, averted environmental damage by securing southern oil fields - only nine were set on fire by Iraqi forces - and so far had persuaded Iraqi people not to flee to neighboring countries.

``The last count of refugees was several hundred, not tens of thousands, as was the case previously,'' he said. ``Why is that? It is because there is not a humanitarian disaster at the present time in those areas.''

In places coalition forces do not control, Rumsfeld said ``there could still be a great many people without food, as was the case under Saddam Hussein. And they may not be able to flee or get to medicine because they may have guns at their heads, and they're being told they can't leave the cities.''

Other U.S. officials, including Natsios, said there was no indication of any large movement of refugees from the country or within the country.

Natsios said his agency was working with other governments and scores of humanitarian groups to help Iraq recover from the war. He said $30 million in grants to at least two dozen humanitarian groups would be distributed by the end of next week.

``This is not just an American effort,'' he said.

He also said President Bush's emergency $74.7 billion budget request to Congress this week includes $2.4 billion for humanitarian assistance to Iraq. Of this amount, $340 million is set aside to purchase food and $60 million is earmarked to cover the cost of distributing the food throughout Iraq.

State Department officials have 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 Commission for Refugees and $10 million for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

European leaders also have pledged to contribute. The European Commission last week requested 79 million euros from the commission's emergency budget reserve, bringing to $100 million the amount of money devoted to the impending humanitarian crisis in Iraq.