GENEVA -- The fighting in Iraq is ''wreaking havoc" on the children, all but preventing relief groups from working in the country, the UN children's agency said yesterday.
In a sign of the difficulties faced by humanitarian efforts, the first independent aid convoy to enter the city of Fallujah after two weeks of fighting had to turn back before delivering aid because of security fears, the international Red Cross said. The Red Crescent convoy of ambulances and three trucks carrying blankets, water, and first-aid kits managed to enter the city Monday before it had to turn back, said Ahmed Rawi, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The Marines said the team was briefed on the aid situation in the city and visited a relief site but was advised by military officials not to distribute aid.
''They did not deliver any assistance," Rawi said, adding that he was waiting for the convoy's report on the security situation. ''We want to see what they saw inside. We want to see their evaluation of the conditions."
The UN children's agency, UNICEF, said there was little it could do to ease the plight of children across Iraq because the violence prevents relief agencies from conducting most operations in the country.
''Humanitarian work in Iraq has been crippled by the fact that international aid agencies, including the UN, have been directly targeted and forced to conduct their humanitarian operations largely from neighboring countries," UNICEF said in a statement.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children are suffering from diarrhea and nutrition deficiencies, UNICEF chief Carol Bellamy said.
A survey Monday by the Norway-based Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science said that since the March 2003 invasion, malnutrition among children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years old has grown from 4 percent to 7.7 percent.
Years of sanctions, tyranny, and war have crippled the country, and even before the latest conflict, one in every eight Iraqi children died before the age of 5, Bellamy said.
''War is waged by adults, but it is the children who suffer the most," Bellamy said. ''This protracted fighting and instability is wreaking havoc on Iraqi children."
Young children are the most vulnerable to malnutrition, which is exacerbated by a lack of clean water and inadequate sanitation, she said.
UNICEF is continuing its Iraqi operations from outside the country, including immunization campaigns and school repairs, but this ''is not enough to protect the health of all of Iraq's children."
Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency said yesterday that about a third of Iranian Kurd refugees at a long-established camp in western Iraq may have fled because of fierce fighting in the city of Ramadi last week.
Before the US-led war, about 13,000 Iranian Kurds had lived in the al-Tash camp, many of whom fled Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Ron Redmond, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said there were reports that up to 35 percent of the 4,200 refugees still in the camp may have left ''in the past few days" after gunmen attacked the camp.
The Red Crescent convoy that entered Fallujah on Monday was apparently escorted by Iraqi security forces and had planned to reach the city's El-Roudha Mohammediah mosque, where they expected to find wounded people.
Dr. Said Ismail al-Haqi, director of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, said aid workers were told by Iraqi security forces that no more than 100 civilian families remained in Fallujah, a city that had a population of 300,000. ''It is a deserted town," Haqi said.
He said the convoy didn't see anyone who needed medical attention and left Fallujah before 5 p.m. on the instructions of the US-led military forces.
''We had seven ambulances, but there was no one there to be evacuated," he said. ''We were told it's already been done," apparently by the military.
A Red Cross spokeswoman in Geneva, Rana Sidani, said the agency, which is mandated under the Geneva Conventions to provide impartial aid to war victims, was trying to reach an agreement with all the warring parties to allow an aid convoy to enter Fallujah without military escort.
''We have contact with the Iraqi fighters as we have contact with other parties to the conflict," she said. ''We are continuing our effort to have contact with everybody involved in the fighting."
The Red Cross is trying to explain ''who we are, what we do, and how crucial for us and for the people affected by the conflict it is for an international organization to be able to operate in that situation," she said.