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Iraqis bracing for war's aftermath

Western aid agencies are preparing to provide food and medical help to Iraqis in case of a US strike.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 2002


The son of Samir Jawad picked at a pomegranate, as the Iraqi mother of nine spoke of living hand-to-mouth – and the results for her family if an American war in Iraq shuts down food handouts here.

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"We depend 100 percent on this food ration," says Mrs. Jawad, pulling her black draping head shawl tight around her chin. "We have only five to six days of food in reserve. God will provide – but without this food, we would die."

To build up some local reserves – and forestall the kind of food riots that accompanied the 1991 Gulf War – Iraq has been handing out food in advance. Officials in August distributed rations for two months; did the same in September; and in early October gave away three-months worth – the ration all the way to February. Those handouts included only 25 percent of the key protein – lentils – because of regional supply problems.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports that "an almost total dependency has developed among Iraqi households on the food ration."

"If that food basket does not reach the family, it's like taking 60 to 90 percent of their salary away," says Carel de Rooy, the UNICEF representative for Iraq. "The whole society is on heavy, heavy welfare."

The oil-for-food deal slowed a steep decline in living standards for Iraq, which has seen infant mortality rates more than double in the last decade. But family reserves are now depleted.

"I've been in households where you had to sit on the floor, because people sold off their furniture," says Mr. de Rooy. "It is very clear: People don't have the same ability to cope as they did in 1991."

The silver lining, the UN and relief agencies say, is that they have been aware the possibility of war for months, and so are making preparations. Still, the agencies make clear that Iraqis are living far closer to the bone today than they were in 1991 – and that the political signals coming from Washington indicate that the scale of any new war is likely to be vast and destructive.

"A war on Iraq will immediately result in a humanitarian catastrophe," says Alexander Christof, head of the German agency Architects for People in Need, one of just a handful of agencies here. Planning for everything from emergency mobile water purification units to kits to treat thousands of war wounded, the agencies have formed a "Disaster Management Team" that is planning to minimize the human cost of war.

Already Iraqi society has been strained by the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War, and by 12 years of the strictest United Nations sanctions ever applied. "And now it ends in another war," says Mr. Christof. "[Iraqi] suffering will increase 500 to 1000 percent. I'm not sure they have the energy to get through it."

Agencies are calculating that – like the Gulf War and the Kosovo conflict in 1999 – within hours of the start of any air campaign, US pilots will knock out Iraq's electricity grid. Water will stop flowing; sewage disposal – run by underground pump stations – will cease; hospitals and other electricity-dependent services will stop functioning.

Food imports for distribution to all 24 million Iraqis will also end. As gas and diesel supplies dry up, Iraqis will have to venture out, as they did in 1991, by bicycle.