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Humanitarian groups chafe at military's role in aid distribution

KUWAIT CITY—Worry about mines in waters approaching the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr and insecurity elsewhere in the country kept Iraqis from getting much humanitarian relief Thursday.

Western aid agencies, which are waiting for the allied coalition's green light that it's safe to distribute aid, watched in frustration as news media showed U.S. and British troops distributing food. They want the military out of that role and want the United Nations to take over managing humanitarian relief in Iraq.

Their main argument is that the many governments that oppose the U.S.-led war would respond more quickly and generously if the United Nations were in charge.

As for the military's distribution of aid, "It blurs the line between the military and humanitarian assistance," and tends to be delivered to the troops' supporters, said Eileen Burke, a spokeswoman for the aid agency Save the Children. "It puts our staff at risk and the ability to carry out our programs at risk.

"We very much value our independence and neutrality," she said.

President Bush promised Sunday that "massive amounts" of aid would reach Iraq within 36 hours. So far, only a trickle has made it. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer blames that on Saddam Hussein's mining of Umm Qasr.

The Sir Galahad, a British Royal Navy vessel loaded with relief supplies, remained at anchor well south of the harbor Thursday.

"No one is going in," said Cassandra Nelson, a spokeswoman for the aid agency Mercy Corps. "Not even our security assessment team can go in and assess the situation."

Nelson and other Western aid workers say the swift U.S. advance through southern Iraq bypassed resistance and left behind no-man's lands too risky for aid distribution.

"As we see their strategy of racing through the desert towards Baghdad, we wonder, what is their plan to put long-term security in the region?" Nelson asked.

U.N. humanitarian agencies are expected to appeal for $2 billion from donor countries as early as Friday, one of the largest single requests ever for relief aid.

But there's concern that many antiwar governments in Europe and elsewhere may not pony up the money. A pre-war appeal for $120 million raised less than half that.

"Countries don't want to be seen as opposing a war and yet financing programs that acknowledge a support for the war," said Antonia Paradela, a spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program.

Nations such as Russia, China, Germany and France want the United States to cover all the immediate humanitarian costs in Iraq because Washington failed to get United Nations support for the war.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-AID

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