Groups press US for role in postwar relief
By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, Globe Staff, 03/22/2003
UNITED NATIONS -- Relief aid could be expedited to Iraq, now that coalition troops have captured a strategic southern port, but aid groups warned yesterday that Iraqis still face an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
With British and US forces in control of Umm Qasr, Iraq's main Persian Gulf port, a senior Defense Department official said that plans call for naval forces to secure a waterway so that ships could swiftly move supplies into the country.
But aid groups warned that they would not be able to deliver humanitarian relief unless the US government quickly provides them with more funding and logistical support. They also contend that neutral aid groups and not US troops should eventually be the ones providing relief to civilians in war-torn areas.
"It's clear the military is going to deliver the bulk of humanitarian supplies in the early days of the conflict," said Mark Bartolini, regional director for the Middle East and Asia for the New York-based International Rescue Committee. "But increasingly, the question is whether or not aid groups will play a part in this at all."
Iraqi civilians are considered at particular risk because they are already weakened by lack of food and by disease brought on by 12 years of UN economic sanctions. Two-thirds of the country is dependent on government food rations; one in four children suffer from malnutrition, the UN says.
"Iraq is on the brink of an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe," said Wivina Belmonte, spokeswoman for the UN Children's Fund in Geneva.
For that reason, the UN's top humanitarian aid officials are slated to meet here next week, when an emergency appeal is to be announced for aid to Iraq. Food is considered the country's top priority.
UN Security Council members are expected to work through the weekend on a plan that would put UN Secretary General Kofi Annan temporarily in charge of a humanitarian program that draws on Iraqi oil revenues for food and other supplies. A draft resolution is expected Monday.
In addition, the UN's World Food Program estimates that it needs at least an additional $1 million to address the needs of Iraq's 25 million people. Iraqis have only enough food for six weeks, the UN estimates. The World Food Program says it has only enough food stockpiled to feed 2 million people for a month. The US Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that it would release up to 600,000 metric tons of wheat, some of which would be sold to purchase rice for delivery to Iraq; the first shipment is expected to arrive in the Middle East within a month.
It remains unclear just how much relief work will be under taken in Iraq by the US military and the US Agency for International Development and how much by the United Nations and a vast network of private aid groups.
Under the Geneva Conventions, US and British forces are considered belligerents and are obligated to protect and take care of civilians. Much of that task falls to the Pentagon's new office for reconstruction and humanitarian affairs, headed by Jay Garner, a retired US Army general.
The US military has said it will distribute high-density rations, a kind of emergency food aid, but otherwise its plans for relief are unknown.
Once Iraq is safe, the 62- member Disaster Assistance Response Team of the US Agency for International Development, now on the ground in Kuwait, will assess needs for food, water, sanitation, and health care. They will then be able to make up to $1 million in grants to private aid agencies in the field to deliver key supplies.
Pentagon and UN officials have met, as UN officials have tried to make contingency plans for Iraq. "Everyone recognizes the need to communicate with belligerents if we are to have good access to the population," a senior UN official said.
But private aid groups still don't know how the Pentagon will proceed, as its humanitarian plans have been as classified as its military strategy. Infuriated, the groups have secured a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.
They also say that the US government has lagged in giving them financial help or to assist in getting exemptions from current regulations banning US travel or shipment of equipment to Iraq.
"Nongovernmental organizations have every reason to say the US government has obstructed their ability to prepare," said Kevin Henry, director of advocacy for CARE, the Atlanta-based relief group.
But the US Agency for International Development says it is doing all it can to ensure that aid groups get to Iraq.
"They are key to the entire process of assistance," said USAID spokesman Luke Zahner. "We feel we have coordinated with them."