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Nations must contribute to $2.2B Iraq relief fund, aid official warns

WASHINGTON—A top U.N. humanitarian aid official said Thursday that countries have contributed less than 20 percent of the estimated $2.2 billion that will be needed to provide food, medicine and other necessities to Iraqis for the next six months.

Ross Mountain, the assistant emergency relief coordinator at the United Nations, said Iraq will face food shortages within two to three weeks and urged the U.S.-led coalition to restore calm quickly to ensure that food supplies can be replenished.

The United States, Great Britain and other European countries have donated some money to the U.N. humanitarian fund for Iraq, but not nearly enough to meet the significant needs of Iraqis devastated by the U.S.-led war.

"We have sent out an appeal for $2.2 billion dollars, and there have been significant pledges," he said in an interview with Knight Ridder, but many donors haven't contributed money to fulfill their pledges.

Mountain also warned that aid could be delayed by political squabbles within the U.N. Security Council, which is reluctant to lift sanctions until U.N. weapons inspectors can return to Iraq and confirm that the country is free of weapons of mass destruction.

Security Council members France and Germany opposed the war on Iraq and are among the countries insisting that the United Nations play a leading role in aid distribution. The Bush administration wants the Pentagon to direct humanitarian aid delivery to Iraq.

All of this means that Iraqis might not be able to get supplies of food and other essentials before they run out in a few weeks, Mountain warned. "Generally there were adequate stocks of medical items, but with looting of hospitals, there are shortages of essential items, such as anesthesia and oxygen."

Even if the political issues are hashed out within the Security Council, there is still the question of the safety of U.N. workers.

"The dominant issue is still security, and unfortunately, while the looting has been reduced, there are still patterns of insecurity in a number of towns," Mountain said.

Before the war, about 60 percent of Iraqis got most of their food from the U.N.'s Oil-for-Food program, which bought and distributed commodities using the proceeds of Iraq's oil sales. It has been extended until June 3, said Benon Sevan, head of the program.

But the program's infrastructure and distribution system were largely destroyed by the war and looting and will be difficult to rebuild, Mountain said. There's also the problem of continued random violence.

"We're not shy of taking risks, but the risks have to be calculated," Mountain said.


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