WASHINGTON—As the United States amasses troops, tanks and aircraft around Iraq in preparation for an invasion, aid agencies and relief personnel are readying for their own struggle—one to keep hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians fed and sheltered when war erupts.
With less publicity than military movements but with growing urgency, the U.S. government has begun shipping everything from 3 million daily food rations to ladders, shelters, blankets, water and medicine to the Middle East to avert a potential humanitarian catastrophe.
A war in Iraq that lasts two to three months could send nearly 1.5 million refugees streaming toward Iraq's borders with Turkey, Jordan, Iran and Syria, and leave an additional 900,000 people displaced from their homes inside Iraq, the United Nations estimates.
Basic services, already stressed by 12 years of economic sanctions, could break down, complicating the already difficult task of governing postwar Iraq.
With war seemingly inevitable, the White House has begun to publicize U.S. plans for humanitarian aid, partly in an effort to convince international opinion that the war is not aimed at average Iraqis.
Those plans call for a major role for the U.S. military, at least initially, in relief and reconstruction, despite President Bush's campaign pledge not to involve the armed forces in what he called "nation building."
The price tag for the first year could reach $1 billion, a large sum but a fraction of the $60 billion to $90 billion the military effort is expected to cost.
Private aid agencies, which carry out most actual relief work in the field, say the U.S. government got a late start in pre-positioning supplies and has been slow to share information on its plans.
"The military preparations are far advanced of the humanitarian preparations," said Joel Charny, vice president for policy of Washington-based Refugees International. "I would be very surprised if we're ready for the humanitarian consequences" of the war, he said.
Predictions of widespread deprivation when the United States went to war in Afghanistan in October 2001 failed to materialize, largely because of extensive advance planning and smaller-than-expected refugee flows.
"Very few disasters . . . have ever come out to be the worst-case scenario,"
Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told a White House briefing.
While it is impossible to predict what will happen, "I think we are very well positioned," Natsios said, noting that planning began in September and has included weekly meetings with relief groups.
Natsios' agency has spent $26.5 million to purchase and pre-position supplies and is in the process of spending an additional $56 million.
It has trained and put together a 60-person Disaster Assistance Response Team, or DART, the largest ever of its kind, that will coordinate complex relief operations with U.N. and private agencies and with the U.S. military. A joint operations center, the relief effort's counterpart to the military's Qatar-based command center, has been established in Kuwait City.
The Pentagon has undertaken a "humanitarian mapping" program to identify vital infrastructure and cultural sites in Iraq "and to protect them to (the) extent that that's possible," said Elliott Abrams, the top National Security Council official dealing with the Middle East.
Still, relief experts say the effort to prepare has been hindered by bureaucracy and by governments neighboring Iraq, which do not want to be perceived as accepting that war is inevitable, or to take steps that will attract unwanted refugees.
"We still have a long way to go," said Stephanie Bunker, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The United Nations has appealed for $123 million just to make preparations, but has received about $49 million, Bunker said. Contributors include the United States and Australia.
InterAction, a coalition of U.S.-based relief groups, complained in mid-February that the Bush administration was slow to issue Treasury Department licenses to allow nongovernmental organizations to conduct assessment missions in and around Iraq. The licenses are needed because of U.N. sanctions on Iraq.
The licensing process has now been streamlined, Abrams said.
Providing relief in Iraq could be trickier than it was in Afghanistan for several reasons.
If Saddam Hussein uses chemical or biological weapons, it would multiply the humanitarian catastrophe and prevent aid workers, who lack the military's chem-bio training and equipment, from reaching affected areas.
"It remains to be seen who will help," said Sandra Mitchell, vice president of the International Rescue Committee.
And unlike in Afghanistan, few private relief agencies have experience in Iraq, which they have been barred from, except for the autonomous Kurdish zone in the north.
An estimated 60 percent of Iraqis depend entirely on rations distributed under the U.N. "oil-for-food" program. Under the system, Iraq's oil revenues are sent to a U.N.-monitored account and used to purchase food and other necessities, which are distributed by a network of 43,000 agents.
Many other Iraqis depend in part on the network, or barter oil-for-food goods for other needs.
"We want to disrupt that system as little as possible, and get it back on its feet as soon as possible," Abrams said.
In the opening days of a conflict, it could fall to the U.S. military, as the major presence on the ground, to provide humanitarian relief and begin helping with reconstruction.
The Pentagon is ready to assist other U.S. agencies, relief groups and the United Nations "to help the Iraqi people in reconstruction," said Joseph Collins, a deputy assistant secretary of defense. "And also—and, perhaps, most importantly—to help them prepare for self-government."
(Knight Ridder correspondent Jessica Guynn contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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