KUWAIT CITY—Working quietly to avoid panic and political land mines, the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies are readying food, tents and other supplies for as many as 1.8 million Iraqis who could be displaced by a U.S. invasion.
Their worst nightmare: a protracted conflict that cuts off food imports by Iraq, a country that buys almost all its food abroad and where 60 percent of the people depend solely on a government-run rationing program.
"The port of Um Qasr alone receives 430,000 tons of food a month. Bomb that and millions of people will be on the road to famine," warned one senior official at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Nations bordering Iraq have been preparing for the possibility of Iraqi civilians fleeing to their countries if a war breaks out. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) already has 180,000 emergency family packs—tents, stoves, blankets and water buckets—in Iran, Turkey and Jordan and expects to reach 300,000 by month's end, said spokesman Peter Kessler in Geneva.
But the care of displaced people who remain in Iraq would be the obligation primarily of the U.S. military, according to the Geneva Conventions.
America's military is stockpiling 3 million daily food packets in the region, plus non-food relief supplies such as blankets and cooking pots for up to 1 million Iraqis.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) has pledged $65 million to U.N. and other relief organizations for Iraq and deployed a 60-member Disaster Assistance Response Team to advance with the military.
A little-known office in Kuwait, the Humanitarian Operations Center, headed by retired Kuwaiti Gen. Ali al Moun and his deputy, U.S. Col. James Brown, is coordinating with U.N. and non-government organizations (NGOs).
But the U.S. military admits it is ill-equipped to deal with the 1.5 million internal refugees already in Iraq, or a crisis like one in 1993, when an Iraqi attack on Kurdish rebels drove 1.8 million toward Iran and Turkey.
The U.N. and NGOs "are the heavy lifters in the field of humanitarian relief . . . our job is to get them back to work as soon as possible," said Joe Collins, deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations.
Relief agencies say they are indeed getting ready for Iraq, but quietly, to avoid sparking a panic. No one wants a repeat of Afghanistan in 2001, when humanitarian agencies repeatedly warned of massive refugee crisis should the United States attack the Taliban government, a crisis that never materialized.
U.N. agencies are also trying to avoid being seen as cooperating too closely with the U.S. military while their bosses back in New York refuse to accept the inevitability of war.
"We are in a delicate position. (U.N. Secretary General) Kofi Annan still hopes that war can be avoided, but it would be irresponsible for our agencies not to be ready," said one U.N. relief official.
There's also no agreement yet on who will help Iraqis who flee to border regions—the International Commission of the Red Cross (ICRC), which usually handles internally displaced persons, or UNHCR, which cares for those who cross international borders.
Red Crescent societies in the region, the local affiliates of the Red Cross, have stockpiled 300,000 emergency family packs but are keeping a low profile because they don't want to be seen as helping U.S. war efforts.
The Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian governments have told foreign relief agencies that they will take care of any Iraqi refugees, while publicly insisting that their borders will be closed to Iraqi civilians.
ICRC officials in Kuwait, Iran and Jordan say they have 150,000 emergency family packets, with tents and food parcels good for several weeks, and can dip into agency reserves elsewhere totaling 500,000 packets.
They also have enough medical assistance packages for Iraqi hospitals to treat 7,000 wounded, a figure "not scenario-based but capacity-based, our capacity," said ICRC Kuwait spokeswoman Tamara Al Rifai.
The U.N. World Food Program is pre-positioning enough food to feed 900,000 people for several weeks and negotiating agreements to buy tons of grains from brokers in Kuwait, said spokeswoman Antonia Paradela.
But food inside Iraq will be the primary worry, officials say. Iraq imports nearly 720,000 tons a month, through the U.N.-run Oil for Food program.
President Saddam Hussein's government distributes the food through a ration program every other week and has reportedly been doling out one month's worth of rations recently, in apparent preparation for war.
But a war that lasts more than a few weeks would be "catastrophic" because 60 percent of Iraqis are too poor to buy anything but the food they receive through their ration cards, Paradela added.
"Iraq is very vulnerable to disaster," she said. "After 12 years of (U.N.) economic sanctions, many people have sold everything they owned and no longer have ways to survive. Any halt in imports would be calamitous."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.