Humanitarian aid to Iraq proves one of war's biggest obstacles

Bush and Blair Thursday called for the UN to immediately resume its oil-for-food program.

The crowds in the captured Iraqi port town of Umm Qasr mobbed the two British water tanker trucks. "Not enough, please! We need a good water supply," one man told British officers.

The chaotic scene Wednesday, the same day crowds of Iraqis swarmed food-laden Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society trucks in a nearby town, has aid workers worried about obstacles facing what is being billed as the largest humanitarian relief operation in history.

As the US, the United Nations and independent organizations gear up to provide relief, aid workers are growing increasingly frustrated by their inability to reach Iraqi civilians who might need help.

At the same time, aid workers in the region and governments that opposed the war are voicing fears that Washington is seeking to control the assistance program to serve its political aim of appearing as a 'liberator' of Iraq.

Nobody is thought to be in immediate danger of starving in Iraq. The Iraqi government recently authorized double rations, which should see most citizens through until the end of April. But with 60 percent of the population dependent entirely on rations distributed under the UN "Oil for Food" program, suspended since the outbreak of hostilities, the prospect of a protracted war is heightening fears of a disaster.

The UN escrow account, holding money to be spent on food that was earned by Iraqi oil exports, holds $8 billion, but France and Russia are refusing to give Washington control of those funds, and resisting any resumption of the oil-for-food program that could be construed as a UN endorsement of the war.

Under the Geneva Conventions, Russia and France argue, the occupying force is responsible for providing humanitarian goods to sustain the population.

Thursday, meeting in Camp David, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair called on the UN to immediately resume the oil-for-food program.

"This urgent humanitarian issue must not be politicized. The Security Council should give Secretary-General Kofi Annan the authority to start getting food supplies to those most in need of assistance," Bush said after meeting with his closest ally.

Though advance columns of US troops are only 50 miles from Baghdad, no humanitarian workers have got further than Umm Qasr, 300 miles to the rear, on the Kuwaiti border.

"We don't operate in a combat environment," says Donald Tighe, spokesman for USAID's Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) in Kuwait, whose experts will spearhead relief efforts. "We have begun the assessment process in areas declared secure by the military," so far limited to Umm Qasr.

With fighting still under way in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, and irregular Iraqi forces roaming the countryside along the roads to Baghdad, only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been able to function. Iraqi ICRC employees this week repaired a water pumping station in Basra.

Danger has also held up the arrival of hundreds of thousands of tons of food that are sitting in warehouses in Gulf countries. British Royal Navy teams discovered two mines in the sea approaches to the deepwater port of Umm Qasr Thursday, delaying the arrival of ships for another day.

As they wait for fighting to die down enough to allow them into Iraq, a number of nongovernmental aid agencies are worrying about the military's use of humanitarian aid in its 'hearts and minds' campaign.

"If a wartime force is involved in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, the delivery of that assistance will not be done in an impartial manner, and neither will it be perceived impartially. The aid will carry a mixed message," argues Rick Augsburger, a Church World Service official who is co-chairing a coalition of NGO's working on the Iraq crisis.

"Humanitarian aid is something that is supposed to be impartial, not connected to a political purpose but done from a humanitarian imperative" adds Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, "It would be most effective, as soon as it is possible, to get the relief organizations back inside."

When they get there, though, they will be careful to distance themselves from the US and British military, aid workers say, so as to guard their freedom and reputation. "It is crucial to us to do our work independently and not to be identified with either party," says Arnoud Hekkens, spokesman for the Care International office in Amman.

Seeking to smooth the way will be the DART members, civilians who work both with the US military's civil affairs officers and with NGOs. When they are able to move into Iraq, they plan to assess the needs of the people they find, and direct US aid to meet them.

Waiting in warehouses around the Middle East, and en route across the Atlantic, are hundreds of thousands of blankets, tens of thousands of hygiene kits, rolls of plastic sheeting, water containers and water treatment units and medical kits provided by the US government. "[Lack of] water, in my view, is one of the most serious ... threats to life," USAID chief Andrew Natsios told reporters in Washington this week. Reverse-osmosis water purifiers, chlorine, and generators for powering pumps are among the equipment readied in Kuwait, he added.

The US will also provide 610,000 tons of food, adding to the 130,000 tons that the UN World Food Program has already stockpiled in the region and the 100,000 tons on their way from Australia. That would be enough to feed Iraq's 24-million population for about two months, aid agencies estimate. But it's unclear how the food could be distributed if hostilities are continuing in a month's time, when people will begin to run out of the flour, rice, sugar, tea, pulses, oil, and dried milk that they have stored in their homes.

The UN is expected Friday to launch its largest-ever appeal for emergency humanitarian aid, asking governments to donate more than $2 billion for aid to Iraq.

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