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Humanitarian Crisis Looms in Iraq

Aid agencies are warning that a humanitarian crisis could unfold in Iraq if emergency supplies are not brought in soon. A French aid organization has accused the United States of using food as a weapon.


British artillery forces engage Iraqi positions outside Basra.

Fears of a humanitarian crisis in Iraq are intensifying as U.S.-led troops meet stiff resistance in the south of the country, blocking supplies of much-needed aid.

Negotiations to restart the U.N. oil-for-food program, which was suspended when U.N. staff members were withdrawn from Iraq ahead of the U.S.-led war, have been stymied by disagreements between Security Council members.

Situation critical in Basra

The situation is especially critical in the southern city of Basra, where fierce fighting has held up U.S. and British troops.

Supplies of drinking water have been reduced to less than half their normal levels after power outages at treatment plants, caused by massive ground and air attacks.

Roland Huguenin, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad, told DW-TV on Tuesday that Basra is now in its fourth day of water and power shortages. He said ICRC engineers were ready to go in as soon as they are given access.

Basra is home to two million people and temperatures there can reach up to 40 degrees Celcius (104 Fahrenheit).

Annan calls for urgent measures

Kofi Annan

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan

In New York on Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (photo) said he believed urgent measures were required to restore power and water to the population. "A city of that size cannot afford to go without electricity or water for long. Aside from the water aspect, you can imagine what it does for sanitation," he said.

Concerns that conditions for the civilian population could worsen were heightened on Tuesday when British defense officials said they had no intention of sending troops into the city, and preferred to view it as a politically significant target. If coalition forces do not control the town, it is likely to remain unsafe for aid organizations to enter.

A British army spokesman, Colonel Chris Vernon, said British troops were "seizing fleeting opportunities" on the thinly populated outskirts of Basra to hit Iraqi tanks and artillery. "We're picking away at it piece by piece but on our terms and where we see critical opportunities," he said.

Conditions in the capital, Baghdad, appear to be slightly less dramatic so far. Huguenin told DW-TV that despite heavy aerial bombardment, electricity and waters services were still operating.

Key port now under control

A British commander said on Tuesday that the southern port town of Umm Qasr, home to Iraq's only deep water harbor, and a key point of access for supplies, is now "safe and open," a claim disputed by Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan.

Brigadier Jim Dutton, commander of the British Royal Marines' 3 Commando Brigade, told reporters he hoped the first ship bringing aid to Iraq would arrive within 48 hours.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Tuesday that there were "huge stockpiles" of humanitarian aid waiting to be brought in from Kuwait.

"All that is holding us back at present is the threat of Iraqi mines," Blair told a news conference.

The British supply ship Sir Galahad, laden with vital civilian supplies, is anchored offshore and is awaiting clearance to enter the port.

Talks stalled

Negotiations to reinstate the U.N. oil-for-food program are set to resume at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday following the postponement of a Security Council resolution to restructure the program for 45 days.

Reuters news agency quoted diplomats from the permanent Security Council members Russia, France and China, as well as non-permanent member Syria, all of which are staunchly opposed to the war, as saying they were wary of language that would have the United Nations coordinate efforts with U.S.-led troops and thereby legitimize their military action.

Russia, Reuters said, is adamant that existing contracts remain unchanged, while Germany, which also opposes the war but has remained neutral in this particular dispute, has been making compromise proposals in its capacity as chair of the panel monitoring the program.

"We're demanding, or hoping, that the coordination of the humanitarian aid will be carried out through the United Nations," Wolfgang Jamann, coordinator for the nonprofit Aktion Deutschland Hilft, told DW-TV. "We don't believe that the warring parties should be able to coordinate or control humanitarian aid."

The British international development minister, Clare Short, said in parliament on Monday, "If this program is not reinstated, it would be very difficult to avoid a humanitarian crisis. We have to get it up and running very quickly."

US accused of breaching Geneva Convention

The French aid organization Action contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger) has accused the United States of using hunger as a weapon, which would be a breach of the Geneva convention. It also accused the United Nations of playing into the hands of the U.S.-led coalition.

The French doctor Jean-Christophe Rufin, president of Action contre la Faim, said Kofi Annan suspended the oil-for-food program without discussion or consultation. "That means the people in Iraq will only get food again when they capitulate," he told DW-RADIO. "Aid will only come after the soldiers. Food is therefore being used as a form of pressure. People are being left to starve."

The oil-for-food program was launched in 1996 to ease human suffering caused by economic sanctions imposed in August 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait. It allows the Iraqi authorities to use oil revenues to purchase food, medicine and civilian goods.

Baghdad has ordered and paid for goods worth some €8.4 billion ($8.9 billion) whose delivery has been put off by the war.

16 million dependent on program

The United Nations estimates that 60 percent of the Iraqi population of 26 million people (almost 16 million) have to rely on the program for food. The U.N. children's fund, UNICEF, says 1.3 million Iraqi children under five already suffer from malnutrition.

The UN World Food Program says it believes some 2.1 million people could require food aid over the next four weeks, while the entire population would need help if the war dragged on any longer.

EU willing to help rebuild Iraq

Meanwhile, the European Union's foreign policy coordinator, Javier Solana, has said the EU would be willing to play its part in the reconstruction of Iraq after the war. But, he said, it could only do this with a U.N. mandate.

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul

German International Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul

The German international development minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul (photo), meanwhile, said on German breakfast TV on Tuesday that those responsible for the war should also bear the brunt of reconstruction costs.

Describing the war as "scandalous", she said the United States would have to pay the lion's share of the costs, while any reconstruction program would have to take place under the auspices of the United Nations.

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