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U.S. Not Prepared For Iraq War Civilian Crisis, Say Relief Groups

by Donal Brown

Slow Motion Genocide in Iraq (Y2000)
(PNS) -- With war planning in high gear, relief organizations -- mostly non-governmental organizations (NGOs) -- are concerned about the U.S. government's resistance to working with the NGOs to protect Iraq's vulnerable civilian population.

Many government agencies have been told not to talk with NGOs about coordinating aid in fear they could jeopardize strategic military planning, according to Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International. In particular, Bacon cites the United States Agency for International Development, which provides economic development and humanitarian aid in support of U.S. foreign policy goals.

Sandra Mitchell, vice president of the International Rescue Committee, says the government has long prevented NGOs from going to Iraq and Iran to assess the water and food supplies or to set up missions that could plan in case of war.

"The President has not made a decision on going into Iraq," said a Treasury Dept. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It infuriates the Bush administration that the NGOs are acting as if the administration has already decided on war."

The Treasury Dept. is responsible for granting exemptions to NGOs to the ban on travel to Iraq.

Mitchell says the military is not sharing any plans it has for Iraq, nor shouldering the burden of full humanitarian assistance. In places such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, the United States has always relied on NGOs to respond to the disruptions that war brings to non-combatants.

"Is the army now prepared to run the refugee camps?" Mitchell asks.

Pentagon Spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan says the Pentagon does planning all the time, including humanitarian relief planning. In Afghanistan, he says, the military was able to conduct a war and still make air food drops. Lapan adds that the Pentagon was preparing to prevent the Iraqi army from attacking civilians.

Whether the Pentagon is prepared to deal with the magnitude of the Iraqi situation remains to be seen. Iraq's bloody history has primed the country for even more mayhem.

Peter Bouckaert, senior researcher for the Human Rights Watch in New York, visited Iraq in the first week of October and found great potential for widespread civilian casualties in the event of war. An estimated 100,000 Kurds in refugee settlements, expelled by Saddam Hussein from the city of Kirkuk, an oil-rich and fertile area, may well attack the Arabs who replaced them, Bouckaert says.

In the event of war, Bacon expects that 1 to 2 million people will attempt to leave Iraq. The Turkish and Iranian governments have announced they will maintain closed borders, which could strand refugees in remote areas without food, shelter or water.

Christine Tucker, Middle East director of Catholic Relief Services based in Cairo, says Iraq is already in a humanitarian crisis. Only 11 percent of the population can access clean water, a decline from 92 percent in 1989. The malnourished population is vulnerable to water-borne diseases and epidemics.

Tucker says that while the U.S. government prohibits or is slow to approve travel to Iraq, the Iraqi government presents another obstacle. "From the Iraqi side, the presence of international NGOs is considered unnecessary. Therefore, although people are granted Iraqi visas to enter the country, establishing a presence and independent programs is not feasible at this time."

As it stands, the United Nations operates one of the few international aid programs in Iraq. Its Oil-for-Food Program feeds 20 million people a month. Six to 7 million of that number are disabled or indigent and depend critically on the rations. The United Nations administers the program in the north and the Iraqi government distributes the aid in Basra and Baghdad.

In the event of a U.S. invasion, the United Nations would be faced with feeding an additional 7 to 8 million. But in the event of war, the United Nations will pull out their foreign workers, creating a food crisis of unknown duration.

Compounding the problem, says Bacon, is that unlike Afghanistan, where international relief agencies maintained a presence, there is scant international presence in Iraq.

According to Bacon, in Afghanistan, the United Nations and NGOs pulled out their expatriate workers when America attacked. But enough aid groups had Afghan staff members who could distribute aid until the expatriates could return.

Tucker confirmed that compared with other countries, there are few NGOs in Iraq. The two largest are the Red Crescent and Caritas Iraq. Both operate health clinics and community centers staffed by Iraqis. While their aid infrastructure would stay in place during war, it would not be enough to meet the needs of the people, Tucker said.

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Albion Monitor November 12 2002 (

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