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Humanitarian Aid in Iraq Is Murky Issue

With water supplies scarce and hospitals overflowing, the United Nations has expressed concern over the humanitarian situation in Iraq. But whose job is it to provide the aid?


Seeking safety: Residents fleeing the burning city of Basra in southern Iraq late last month.

Geneva-based aid organizations are in a difficult position in Iraq, with limited ability to deliver basic food and medical aid, and the future of the region uncertain. Yet the already murky situation is further clouded by debate over whether it should be the invading forces or the world aid agencies who do the clean-up work in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

The idea of the United States and Great Britain's militaries offering humanitarian -- or any other -- reconstruction aid has met with skepticism by some European nations, notably France. Following talks with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on Tuesday, French President Jacques Chirac insisted: "It is the job of the United Nations, and it alone, to take on the political, economic, humanitarian and administrative reconstruction of Iraq."

For their part, U.S. President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have said that the United Nations should indeed play a "vital role" in postwar Iraq. This is widely interpreted to be restricted to providing humanitarian aid, not in terms of helping reconstruct the country's government or industry.

Aid required under Geneva Convention

Geneva aid agencies themselves have been far less critical of the idea of getting assistance from the U.S. and U.K. In fact, they say, the Geneva convention says it is the duty of an invading power to give aid.

Nonetheless, said International Red Cross spokesman Florian Westphal, "What we are worried about is when, among the people of Iraq, the idea spreads that the military organizations and aid organizations are one and the same. We have to see to it that we continue to be seen as neutral and independent. If this reputation gets lost among the people because they think of us as soldiers, then we have a serious problem."

At present, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees has little to do, its camps at the Iraqi borders mostly stand empty. The World Food Program is giving food aid to the people in the north, and has supplies that are expected to last until the beginning of May. But water, not food, is the biggest problem

Compromised water supply

In Basra and Baghdad, parts of the water supply have broken down, according to the Red Cross. Although specialists are feverishly working on repairs, the effects of a diminished water supply could be dramatic -- especially for children, who are already weak and susceptible, according to World Health Organization spokesman Ian Simpson.

"The more information we get from the cities, even in the south, the clearer the problem becomes. The temperatures are rising very quickly, and with that comes the problem of dysentery. Possibly there is also a problem with cholera. I am stressing that we have no reported cases of cholera to date, but the probability is high. These are our fears."

According to data from the children's aid organization UNICEF, the occurrence of dysentery is on the rise in southern Iraq. WHO's Simpson notes there is no point in feeding people when they can't be kept healthy. "Many simply can't keep the food in their systems."

Medical kits at the ready

In order to prevent a cholera or dysentery outbreak, the water quality must be tested, Simpson says. In Jordan, the WHO has 23 test kits ready to be deployed. "We are waiting to be able to get into Iraq but the decision has to be made at the U.N. level."

The WHO also has 36 emergency medical kits at the ready in Jordan, with drugs and medical supplies for use in the warzone. According to WHO information, each kit contains medical supplies needed for 10,000 people for up to three months.

Mann im Krankenhaus in Bagdad.jpg

An Iraqi man lies in a Baghdad hospital after being wounded in the war.

At the Red Cross, the focus of concern is currently Baghdad. There are no reliable counts of the dead and injured there, according to the Red Cross' Westphal. The hospitals are overflowing with the injured, and medical supplies are being exhausted. The Red Cross was able to re-supply just one clinic so far, and will try to do so with further clinics. But the ability to move around is extremely restricted due to the battles and bombardments.

Not just in Baghdad, but all across Iraq, the situation is worrisome, Westphal says. "In Nasiriya, Karbala, Najaf -- all these cities where there was intense fighting. Sometimes we hear reports that there, too, the situation in hospitals is really difficult. And these hospitals have no aid, for the time being."

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