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Humanitarian aid to Iraq delayed

WASHINGTON—Relief shipments of food, water, medicine and blankets failed to arrive in southern Iraq on Tuesday, their passage blocked by mines in a key waterway and by scattered military skirmishes. Concerns about a humanitarian crisis loomed.

Coalition military patrols swept for mines in channels near the southern port of Umm Qasr, and the Navy brought in trained dolphins to locate remaining mines.

But lingering danger kept a British ship, Sir Galahad, offshore and unable to deliver 231 tons of relief supplies. Two Australian ships, each bearing 50 tons of wheat, waited offshore. Vast quantities of U.S. relief supplies remained in neighboring Kuwait and nearby Qatar.

In Basra, Iraq's second largest city, international Red Cross experts struggled to get clean water flowing. Some 60 percent of Basra's 1.4 million residents have been without clean water since Friday, prompting fear of epidemics.

Technicians reached the Wafa al-Quaid water plant north of Basra but warned that repairs "can take awhile," the Red Cross said in a statement.

A senior U.S. official, Andrew Natsios, chief of the Agency for International Development, blamed the water shortages in Basra on an Iraqi military unit there.

"The reporting we're getting is that they shut off the water deliberately to the city—the Iraqi military did—so this is a very calculated thing to increase the suffering of the Iraqi people," Natsios said.

Oxfam International, designated as the lead agency for water supply in Iraq by the United Nations after the war ends, said it feared a catastrophe in Basra.

"People are drawing from the river, which is full of sewage," said Sam Barratt, a spokesman for the relief group based in Oxford, England.

Because the Shatt al-Arab waterway is so contaminated, Oxfam and other charities fear an outbreak of cholera and typhoid may occur.

The Bush administration scrambled to show that it had a major plan in place to mitigate suffering. On Sunday, President Bush promised that "massive" humanitarian aid would arrive in Iraq within 36 hours. With that deadline past by Tuesday afternoon, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer blamed the mines, saying they made maritime deliveries impossible.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking in London before his visit on Wednesday with Bush at the Camp David retreat in Maryland, said British forces were constructing a temporary pipeline to bring water from neighboring Kuwait into southern Iraq.

Blair said he would discuss with Bush the need to restore a U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq that was shut down last week with the onset of war. The program has some $2.3 billion in unspent funds, he said. It was established in 1996 to soften the impact of economic sanctions on the Saddam Hussein regime.

"We are committed to supporting (U.N. Secretary-General) Kofi Annan in every way possible to get the oil-for-food program up and running again as soon as possible," Blair said.

Several private relief groups and U.N. agencies voiced concern about suffering in Iraq.

UNICEF, the U.N. agency dedicated to the welfare of children, "is deeply troubled by the deteriorating conditions for children in the areas most impacted by military operations," said Carol Bellamy, the agency's executive director.

Natsios, the top U.S. relief official, said hunger is not an immediate fear in southern Iraq because residents were receiving double rations from Baghdad authorities in recent months.

"There's more than enough food in people's homes, we believe, to last about a month if there's no food distribution at all," Natsios said.

The Bush administration will provide 610,000 metric tons of food to Iraq in coming weeks, Natsios said. His office reported that stockpiles of blankets, medical kits, plastic sheeting, water treatment units and other relief supplies are stored in the Persian Gulf region for delivery to Iraq once conditions are safer.


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