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U.N. must control Iraqi relief operations

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Even before the war against Iraq has reached its climax, the U.S.-British invasion of that country had already provoked a humanitarian crisis that is proving to be a nightmare for international relief agencies. Although much has been done by relief agencies in preparation for this emergency, it is crucial to have the U.N. Oil for Food Program working at full speed to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq.

In a timely and unanimous vote, the United Nations Security Council on March 28 approved the resumption of this program, which allows Iraq to sell oil and use the proceeds to buy food and civilian goods despite economic sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The oil-for-food program was interrupted after U.N. international staff left Iraq on March 17.

The Bush administration has decided that food aid will be delivered by U.S. and British forces. To put the military in charge of humanitarian aid, however, has already provoked a political crisis, since many governments willing to help do not want to be associated with the American-led invasion of Iraq.

Several U.S. charities, among them CARE, the International Rescue Committee, World Vision and Save the Children have indicated that they will not accept U.S. military protection in delivering relief supplies because of security risks.

Although food delivered by the U.S. and British military forces may eventually alleviate the food emergency, it is improbable that the forces can solve it completely. There are crucial needs of the population that cannot be covered under these actions. This is particularly true because of the atmosphere of terror affecting the daily lives of children and adults alike.

“We spend most of the time waiting, waiting for the next bomb to fall,” a resident of the besieged city of Basra declared recently. Following the initial attacks on the city by coalition forces there has been a rush to buy medicine, particularly antidiarrhea medications. Tranquilizers such as Valium cannot be found in pharmacies.

On March 26, international aid agencies warned that food reaching Iraq was not enough to avoid a humanitarian disaster. The World Health Organization stated that the situation in Basra was particularly dire, since most of the city’s 1.7 million population had been short of water for several days.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan warned coalition forces that under the Geneva Accords “those in effective control of any territory are responsible for meeting the humanitarian needs of the population.” Martin Dawes, a UNICEF spokesman, has said that the aid given thus far “doesn’t conform to any standard of human respect.”

The U.N.’s World Food Program, or WFP, estimates that food in Iraq may last until the end of April. However, if the conflict drags on, distribution of food through the oil-for-food program may be interrupted for longer than expected.

According to WHO, in addition to providing food, the most urgent priorities include providing potable water and sanitation, preventing the outbreak of communicable diseases, providing supplements for treating trauma and injuries, and minimizing the effects of the discontinuation of treatment for chronic diseases.

As things stand now in Iraq, the best way to help the Iraqi people is to put all relief operations under the control of the U.N. and its specialized agencies. Because of administrative constraints, billions of dollars have not yet been put to use by the oil for food program. That program, now reinstated, should be given full support, and all barriers for providing contracts for essential items should be eliminated. The survival of the Iraqi population is at stake.