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Safety concerns hold up distribution of food aid to parts of Iraq

DOHA, Qatar—Some Iraqi civilians could run out of food within a month, U.S. aid officials said Wednesday, but the food problems are likely to be confined to "pockets of need."

"We're not really seeing a humanitarian crisis," said Michael Marx, a team leader with the U.S. Agency for International Development. "Although there are vulnerable areas of the country, we're not looking at a crisis where people are going to start dying."

Hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of tons of food are ready to be distributed as soon as it is safe to do so, officials said, and the team has made contingency plans with the military to distribute relief if the war doesn't end soon.

Food aid has been a concern for civilian relief agencies, which have urged the Bush administration to move faster with plans to deliver aid in a country where 60 percent of households are largely dependent on government rations.

USAID officials said Wednesday that they had been planning for four months, stockpiling enough commodities in three Middle East countries for 1 million people. The supplies include 15,000 rolls of plastic sheeting, 265,000 wool blankets and 85,000 hygiene kits.

But the supplies remain in warehouses or at sea until coalition forces can eliminate pockets of resistance.

"Umm Qasr is essentially the limit of our advance," Marx said.

British troops are building a 200-bed hospital for Iraqi civilians and prisoners of war in southern Iraq, and the British have extended a water pipeline from Kuwait to southern Iraq to deliver nearly 400,000 gallons a day, enough for 160,000 people.

Marx said several nations, including Japan, Canada and Spain, had pledged humanitarian assistance.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent continue to operate in Iraq, he said, while his team of more than 60 waits in Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey, Cyprus and Qatar.

When Iraq becomes safer, the coalition's doctors, logisticians, and water and sanitation engineers will enter the country. They hope to "bridge the gap" between civil affairs soldiers and the international humanitarian community.

"The fundamental principle of our humanitarian operations is to save lives and relieve suffering," Marx said. "We're not out there by ourselves. This is very much an international response."


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