by Emad Mekay
calls from the humanitarian community for the administration of President George W. Bush to articulate its relief plans in the event of war on Iraq, U.S. officials refuse to give details of their efforts, blaming the uncertainty on an unpredictable Saddam Hussein.
"There are plans but discussing them more puts people at risk," said Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on Tuesday, adding that Washington intends to "protect the existing system".
Natsios' statement come one day after a group of U.S. planners said they were working to offset what could be a major humanitarian disaster in Iraq, motivated by the knowledge that the effort would demonstrate to Iraqis that their lives would be better off after a U.S. attack.
"Clearly, the better we can do in this humanitarian effort, the better off the Iraqi people will be, and the more quickly they will come to see this intervention by coalition forces as having changed and improved their lives," said Natsios.
"So there's no way of avoiding the fact that the better we do at it, the more positive political impact it will have inside Iraq and in the region."
On Monday, officials said they could still not reveal their exact plans because they could not anticipate how many Iraqis would be displaced by the attack, which many people are now calling "inevitable", nor how the conflict would affect an already difficult humanitarian situation.
"To a substantial degree, the answer to that question depends on the regime," Elliott Abrams, senior director for Near East and North Africa at the National Security Council, told reporters.
Abrams suggested that the situation in Iraq, already a major humanitarian crisis, was further complicated because of President Saddam Hussein's possible use of weapons of mass destruction.
Saddam could destroy oil wells, deliberately cause flooding or even encourage ethnic violence and destroy the country's infrastructure. "Those are questions we're not going to be able to answer at this time," Abrams said.
Relief agencies welcome the news that the administration is planning humanitarian aid, but officials left groups wanting more information so they can fine-tune their own work, said Mary E. McClymont, president of U.S-based InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) providing international relief and development.
After the 1991 Gulf War and nearly 12 years of sanctions, the United Nations estimates that about 60 percent of Iraq's 22 million people are completely dependent on food distributed via the UN's Oil For Food program, with many others at least partly reliant on the same mechanism.
The agency says that there are roughly 800,000 displaced people inside Iraq, and 740,000 who are refugees in nearby countries.
If a U.S.-led force attacks Iraq, war could create anywhere from 600,000 to 1.5 million additional refugees and asylum seekers. Another one million people could become internally displaced, more than doubling the number of homeless Iraqis in the oil-rich nation, says the United Nations.
Humanitarian agencies in Iraq have complained that a military conflict could also interrupt distribution under Oil For Food, disrupt electricity supplies and cause more UN and NGO workers to evacuate.
On Monday, the United States and its allies in the UN Security Council submitted a resolution calling for action against Saddam for failing to comply with previous demands that he destroy the country's weapons of mass destruction.
The Bush administration, under pressure from grassroots groups, some of its allies and a few U.S. senators to shed its secrecy on relief plans, has been on a public relations offensive recently to prove it is taking the volatile humanitarian situation into account.
Seeking to pre-empt accusations that the U.S. military would be primarily to blame for a deterioration of conditions in Iraq, Abrams, a long-time political hawk, said conflict would not cause as much damage as would Saddam's regime.
"One of the other key variables is not the damage that the conflict does to the population of Iraq, it's how much additional damage the government of Iraq does to the population of Iraq," he said.
Abrams called estimates by international relief groups that hundreds of thousand could go displaced, "plain speculation".
U.S. planners said that the administration would primarily rely on international groups, such as UN agencies, NGOs, other governments and their civilian agencies to provide aid. Abrams said U.S. officials have been meeting with representatives of the international aid community for "several months now".
"These organizations - the UN agencies, the NGOs - have enormous expertise and capacity," Abrams said. "We're going to try to facilitate and fund their efforts to the greatest extent possible."
Earlier this month, the U.S.-based Center for Economic and Social Rights reported that a consortium of U.S. NGOs based in Jordan had been involved in training with the U.S. defense department. The Center said that aid groups working in Iraq were worried that Washington would award aid money based on groups' support for its campaign against Iraq.
Washington officials said that agencies are stockpiling blankets, water containers, shelter supplies, food and other relief items for one million people in neighboring countries.
There has been a "massive pre-positioning of supplies" in four countries in the region, in large warehouses rented by USAID, said Natsios.
"The stuff is there now, and more stuff is on the way," he said.
Natsios said "humanitarian operations centers" were being established in the region with the cooperation of several neighboring governments.
Kuwait, a key U.S. ally in the region, has provided a large facility to support a humanitarian operation center in Kuwait City, he added.
The refugee bureau at the U.S. State Department has provided over $15 million to international agencies for contingency planning - most of that to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, officials added.
February 25, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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