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.

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.

"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.

Jawad's family is a typical case: A school notebook lists material needed by her hospitalized 7-year-old son, Zein al-Abidine, which Jawad can't afford. From the southern city of Najaf, she has come to Baghdad for Zein's treatment.

Difficult as her life may be in peacetime, it could become critically complicated if US bombing starts, and stretches from the city of Kirkuk in the north, to Basra in the south.

"They can't absorb any more problems – nobody is equipped on the humanitarian front," says Marcus Dolder, head of the Iraq delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. His experience stretches from the Gulf War to Chechnya, Bosnia, Rwanda and two years in Afghanistan before coming to Iraq. "The effects of war will be quick and very dramatic on these people."

Unlike in Afghanistan, where there has never been any infrastructure to speak of, Iraq is vulnerable to power failure. An oil-rich country, the regime of Saddam Hussein – before smothering his nation in the Iran-Iraq war – invested heavily in state-of-the-art services like hospitals, water treatment and sewage facilities the 1970s and early 1980s.

Potable water is a "crucial first priority," Mr. Dolder says, in a country that expends half a million tons of sewage into the waterways daily. But while agencies are working out plans for mobile filtering systems and tanker distribution, another danger is the sewer system.

Because of vulnerable pumping stations and the erratic pressure in water mains – which means that leaking pipes can suck in pollutants, and deliver sewage to the tap – agencies are concerned about health problems.

Even in peacetime, UN figures show that the average Iraqi child has 15 cases of diarrhea a year. In Iraq's sticky and sweltering climate, preventing epidemics is key. The ICRC is organizing water tankers and generators, and importing wound-treatment kits for thousands of people.

"The hospitals have the ability to maintain activities for two weeks – after that it is finished," says Vincent Hubin, the country director for the French agency Premiere Urgence. His staff are rushing to restore blood banks and supply hospital bedding and other needs.

"We are pushing every day to finish," Mr. Hubin says. The government is stocking up fuel, generators, and "giving out maximum medical supplies in order to keep the hospitals alive."

While issuing the warning, the agencies are also asking for funds for their preparations. "All donors will give money once bombs start to fall," says Hubin. "The problem for all [agencies], is that we have clear plans, but not a penny for disaster preparedness."

Many Iraqis say they remember the Gulf War experience, when a 42-day bombing campaign was followed by a 100-hour US-led ground attack, and anti-government uprisings.

"It was very difficult – we had to operate by candle light," recalls Dr. Murtada Hassan, the chief hematologist at the Mansur Hospital in Baghdad. "Many things were damaged, like vaccines and blood supplies, because the temperature in Iraq is hot, even in the winter."

While he is pleased that generators are being furnished for his hospital, he says: "Even the generators can't work forever, because the gas and benzine will be finished."

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