Time for Compassion

THE Gulf conflict, like every war, left a wake of destruction and suffering. The extent of that suffering, particularly inside Iraq, was made clearer by the report of United Nations Undersecretary General Martti Ahtisaari. His week-long inspection of the country revealed a civilian population on the brink of catastrophe because of the near-total breakdown of public services, food distribution, and health care after the coalition bombing.

In these circumstances, political and diplomatic bickering over how and when to loosen the sanctions against Iraq had to give way to humanitarian imperatives. The UN sanctions against Iraq have been loosened to allow substantial shipments of food and medicines.

The United States and fellow anti-Saddam coalition members on the Security Council are concerned that the supplies reaching Iraq get into the hands of people that really need them, instead of being hoarded by the military in the field. For now, the best the UN can do on that issue is institute a system of regular inspections inside the country. There is at present no alternative to using Iraqi governmental agencies already in place to distribute the goods.

A major source of hardship has been the disruption of electricity and, especially, water purification. Restoring these services will require fuel and manufactured parts from abroad. Those types of aid, too, should be allowed into Iraq. The embargo on arms and other strategic materials should remain until the crucial factor, Iraq's political future, becomes much clearer.

Washington may have doubts about the timing of sanctions relaxation, given incomplete negotiations on a final cease-fire. But the cease-fire is likely to be signed, under conditions demanded by the coalition, whether or not aid starts to flow.

By getting fully behind efforts to bring emergency help to Iraq's beleaguered people, the US can show that President Bush meant it when he said the Iraqi people were not the enemy. American compassion is what the world - particularly the Arab world - needs to see now. The world has already seen American might.

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