The aid effort: Can catastrophe be averted?

Though many Iraqis face an imminent food shortage, shipments are delayed by continued lack of security.

The mounting pressure on coalition troops to restore order in Iraq is being driven largely by a fundamental equation: The longer it takes for security to be established, the longer Iraqi civilians will go without needed supplies such as food, water, and medicine.

Although US and international aid agencies are poised to launch one of the largest postwar humanitarian relief operations in history, the effort so far has been almost entirely stalled by the anarchy gripping most of Iraq.

Already, one worker for the International Committee of the Red Cross has been killed, forcing the ICRC to suspend all activity in Baghdad for days. Other aid groups have been similarly stymied by the lack of security: On Monday, United Nations humanitarian workers postponed reentering Iraq after the US military said it could not guarantee their safety.

Urgent lack of supplies

Some aid is being delivered in northern Iraq, as well as in southern areas such as the port city of Umm Qasr. But experts say no large-scale shipments can get through to the rest of the country until it is better secured. While the situation has not yet resulted in widespread starvation or disease, the introduction of aid in the next few weeks is critical: Most of the population has enough food to last just until the end of April.

Even more urgent is the lack of water and medical supplies in many areas. Ironically, some experts say, although coalition fire spared much of the Iraqi infrastructure during the fighting this past month, hospitals and water treatment plants are now being damaged and ransacked by looters.

"It's just really a chaotic situation at this point," says Joel Charny, vice president for policy at Refugees International, an advocacy group in Washington. "It's absolutely urgent that the situation be brought under control so that there's no further damage ... and so that aid operations can start."

Small improvements in security

Security in Baghdad has improved somewhat in recent days, with US soldiers and some Iraqi police now patrolling the streets. This week, a team of health officials from the United States Agency for International Development was able to enter the city to begin assessing the medical situation, and relief workers say they're hopeful that critical aid operations may soon get under way.

Still, with looting and violence continuing to plague much of the area, the vast majority of aid workers may be relegated to the sidelines for some time to come. All UN staff, for example, must gain clearance from a security coordinator before entering the area, so as not to compromise the agencies' insurance.

Even when aid workers do finally enter the country and begin assessing the needs of the population, experts say, there may be an additional delay before many problems can be addressed, since organizations often can't appeal for funding until after specific needs have been identified.

"There's always a little bit of delay between the manifest needs and the international response," says Arthur Helton, an expert on humanitarian issues at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "And in this instance, that delay will be under a microscope."

A lesson from Kosovo

Mr. Helton says the challenges posed by a lack of security in the wake of fighting shouldn't have come as a big surprise to the US, given that a similar situation arose in Kosovo.

But the coalition just didn't have adequate tools to address those problems: "Quelling civil disorder and chaos is not necessarily considered to be a mission objective of the military," he says.

Even if security problems are eventually resolved, humanitarian groups will still face a number of challenges in bringing relief to Iraqi citizens.

The number of Iraqis requiring food aid is extremely high, in part because 60 percent of the population was already on food assistance before the war began, receiving supplies such as sugar, flour, lentils, and oil through the UN Oil for Food program. That program is likely to be revived in the short term, though experts say the Iraqis eventually will have to shift to more independent means of food production.

'Already precarious' infrastructure

In addition, observers note that multiple wars and years of sanctions had taken a significant toll on everything from Iraq's roads to its sewage treatment facilities, even before the latest conflict.

"The whole Iraqi infrastructure was already precarious before this war," says Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the ICRC in Geneva. But, despite its disrepair, the infrastructure is relatively sophisticated, Ms. Doumani says, with large highways and advanced medical facilities, requiring massive - and costly - reconstruction efforts.

To some extent, politics and diplomacy may also complicate humanitarian operations - and the coordination of relief will pose a key question in coming weeks. Experts point out that the exact role of the UN, and the extent to which it is willing to cooperate with the US, has not yet been determined.

While neither side wants to let politics get in the way of the aid effort, "there are strong feelings on both sides of this issue," says Mr. Charny. "The UN is not going to be a subsidiary of the US Department of Defense in providing humanitarian assistance to Iraq," he warns. "And if the US insists on that, there will be difficulties."

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