Relief for Kurds Slow in Arriving

INTERNATIONAL support for 2 million Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein's forces is not keeping pace with runaway problems in northern Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, where the human waves are seeking refuge. Host countries are overwhelmed by refugee demands, while in northern Iraq, multinational forces try to feed and house languishing Kurds who await a comprehensive United Nations intervention.

A congressional delegation, back in Washington after a visit to the Middle East, reports that relief operations are inadequate - they lack leadership, are poorly coordinated, and are underfunded.

"Everyone knows who the commander of Operation Desert Storm was. I was in refugee camps for three days, and I still don't know who was in charge," says Rep. Tony Hall (D) of Ohio, chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger. Mr. Hall and four other US representatives returned Tuesday from mountaintop Kurdish refugee areas straddling the Iraqi-Turkish border.

Encampments set up

United States officials report that up to 1,000 people die each day from exposure, malnutrition, and unsanitary conditions as American military forces scramble to set up encampments inside northern Iraq in an attempt to lure Kurdish refugees back to their homes.

While Mr. Hall and his colleagues applaud the US military assistance efforts - calling it a "life support system" that "avoided a genocidal catastrophe" - they seek cogent international leadership to address refugees' humanitarian needs, their repatriation to their homes, and their ultimate safety once they return.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D) of California says the US military's difficulty in extricating itself from caring for the Kurds is complicated by the assertion by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that "the UN doesn't have the mandate to protect refugees within their own countries."

But the UN is precisely the party to take the lead role in orchestrating relief efforts, Hall says. "The UN should appoint a permanent undersecretary for humanitarian affairs to make decisions and move with authority."

Had this existed three weeks ago, much of the chaos would have been averted, Hall says. "I'd like to see a high-level UN official go to the mountain areas and at least survey the problems there."

President Bush's decision to assist Iraq's distressed population within its own borders is a strong signal that "when people are suffering, borders don't matter," Hall says. "I think that's a good policy, internationally."

Philippe Boulle, director of the UN Disaster Relief Organization, says, "A country can say that, but the UN cannot. I hear a lot of people saying the UN can go into Iraq, but we can't."

A week ago Iraq's new foreign minister, Ahmed Hussein, and Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, the UN's temporary appointee in charge of Middle East regional humanitarian affairs, agreed on a plan to care for Kurds and other displaced persons within Iraq.

Mr. Boulle says the UN's time frame for entering Iraq is undetermined. Potential conflicts exist between the UN and what US and coalition forces are already doing in the northern Kurdish areas. Rep. Marge Roukema (R) of New Jersey says Bush "should designate a high-ranking official to lead negotiations with the UN and other interested parties in the area ... to avoid a protracted US military commitment."

Governments and relief agencies were caught off-guard by the sudden outpouring of Kurds. "This is unprecedented. No one believed that the Kurds would have moved and moved so quickly," says Boulle. He says the UN issued warnings of the impending flight and they were met with scorn: "People were saying it was a ploy just to raise money."

The UN has sought $400 million to meet needs in Iranian and Turkish camps; it is $325 million short of that goal. The eventual UN role in Iraq will cost an additional $175 million, says Boulle. All told, international agencies have requested $722 million from donors to meet assistance needs over the next 90 days. Only a fraction of that is pledged.

Operating accounts low

The US must now replenish foreign operations accounts which have run perilously low in recent months. Hall warns that the Kurds will be in camps through the brutally hot summer and the harsh winter to follow.

An April 23 report from the State Department's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance states that hundreds of thousands of fleeing Iraqi Kurds are clogging roads along the Iran-Iraq border. One million, half of them children, have crossed into Iran. Working through Swiss intermediaries, Iran agreed on Tuesday to accept US assistance for the refugees and has provided Washington with a list of necessities.

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