Delivering food amid sniper shots: US's big challenge

Guerrilla war complicates aid giving, impairing the quest to win over Iraqis.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

One target conspicuously absent from the US and British bombing campaign over the past two weeks has been Iraq's electrical supply.

On one level it's about water - and preservation of a safe, portable water-supply system - as part of the war's humanitarian calculus. Without electricity, a highly urbanized society such as Iraq loses its ability to deliver safe drinking water.

But on another level, it's about convincing a population that you have their interests in mind - while avoiding the nightmarish scenes that a water-supply disaster in Iraq would quickly send around the globe.

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Concerns about potable water suggest just one aspect of the tough and tricky road ahead as the US fights a war both to subdue a country and remake it.

A war that looks as if it may last longer than anticipated, or morph into a guerrilla war perhaps continuing even after Saddam Hussein is deposed, is already complicating humanitarian assistance and raising questions about more long-term reconstruction plans.

"We're trying to avoid doing damage to the electrical system, because without [power] you have a cascade of problems - including water supply - and that quickly complicates your humanitarian problems," says William Durch, an expert on peacekeeping at the Henry L. Stinson Center in Washington. "But a sustained war is bound to make achieving those goals, both short- and long-term, more difficult."

That seems especially true after a series of events, including a deadly suicide bombing and other Iraqi guerrilla warfare tactics, have US soldiers responding with more suspicion towards the general population. The killing of 10 civilians at a US Army checkpoint Monday, when their vehicle was fired upon after it failed to slow down, indicates the new levels of tension on both sides.

"When the soldiers' first order of business becomes that of protecting themselves, it makes all the more difficult the delivery of humanitarian assistance and general contact with the very people those soldiers are supposed to be helping," says Martha Brill Olcott, a nation-building expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Not only is each side more suspicious of the other, but the more entrenched kind of war the US is having to fight portends tough times ahead for the conflict's public-relations goals.

"A security situation that is less quickly dominated than anticipated means traditional aid workers can't come in, which leaves the soldiers to do that work, and that offers the pro-Saddam forces more opportunities to exploit the public contact points and drag out the war," says Ms. Olcott.

"It's a nasty spiral that's not going to disappear," she adds, because "it allows them to portray this as a war of occupation, and not liberation as the US would have it."

A more difficult entry into southern Iraq than anticipated by allied forces is complicating aid delivery plans. It's hampering food assistance for a country where, even before the war started, 60 percent of the population depended on a United Nations-administered food program.

Existing food supplies should allow most of the country to avoid dire shortages for roughly another month, Mr. Durch says, and thus stave off a humanitarian crisis - provided electricity is not widely cut and water in cities continues to flow.

But others are less sanguine. InterAction, a coalition of more than 160 US-based international relief groups, estimates as many as 10 million Iraqis - 40 percent of the population - may require immediate food aid.

InterAction also estimates that the cost of the first six months of humanitarian assistance alone is likely to reach $800 million.

The southern port city of Umm Qasr exemplifies the humanitarian complications that can lie ahead. Not only is the port still considered too unsafe for aid ships to dock, but electricity there is out - there is no power to operate the cranes to unload supplies.

Regular water service, out since the war commenced, was just Monday replaced by a makeshift pipe bringing 400,000 gallons a day of potable water from Kuwait.

The difficulties short-term humanitarian assistance faces is also raising questions about the Bush administration's long-term Iraq reconstruction plans.

The original scenario was for a small group of US corporations with track records in specific infrastructure work to move into Iraq and quickly get the country back on its feet economically.

But the unanticipated security risks throughout Iraq are casting doubt on the plan's workability, experts say.

The Bush administration "wanted to make a point by making a new model for nation building, but their model doesn't factor in a lack of security and a neutral [or] even hostile population," says Joseph Cirincione, director of Carnegie's Non-Proliferation Project.

Some nation-building experts acknowledge the model's potential advantages. But they say those were largely predicated upon a war that would end quickly with most of the Iraqi population greeting the Americans as liberators.

"In that situation you could get in select companies to quickly repair roads, build schools, and get the oil fields back in production," Olcott says. Now that the post war scenario is looking more like "a classic occupation," she adds, "the reconstruction plan is going to have to change."

The Stinson Center's Durch agrees that a different vision of reconstruction is needed in a situation where neighboring Arab populations are increasingly hostile to the US-led war. "If the focus of the operation is too American," Durch says, "that will only fuel the thinking, erroneous or not, that this was all about oil, contracts to buddies, and an imperialist occupation."

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