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IRAQ: U.N. Humanitarian Relief

Author: Sharon Otterman
April 11, 2003

How much humanitarian relief is being provided to Iraq?

It is difficult to judge with precision. U.S. and British forces, United Nations agencies, private relief groups and some foreign governments are distributing supplies, though continued fighting and widespread looting is preventing aid from reaching much of the country.

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Where is aid getting through?

Relief efforts organized by British military forces have begun in southern Iraq, and some aid is being distributed through U.S. military channels. Water shortages in Basra, a problem in the early days of the war, seemed to have eased. The International Red Cross and UNICEF are supplying water to Basra and Umm Qasr, and flour is being distributed in the Kurdish-controlled north by the United Nations World Food Program.

Who will pay for short-term relief?

As an occupying power, the United States has the responsibility, according to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, to provide for the immediate needs of the people of Iraq. The Bush administration has asked Congress for $2.45 billion to finance the first six months of Iraqi reconstruction; of that, $530 million will fund short-term relief. The United States pledged to send 600,000 tons of grain to Iraq, donated $200 million to the World Food Program for local food purchases, and has given $20 million to nongovernmental organizations for Iraqi relief.

What other funding is available?

The United Nations has started a $2.2 billion relief appeal. Separately, the U.S. Agency for International Development reported that nearly 20 countries have pledged $684 million to support relief efforts.

How are relief efforts related to long-term reconstruction?

Relief is the first phase of what is expected to be a multiyear process to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and establish a representative government.

What U.S. agencies are involved in relief?

The U.S. Defense Department says its Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) will coordinate short-term assistance, as well as the long-term reconstruction of Iraq. ORHA is led by a retired U.S. Army general, Jay Garner, who reports to General Tommy R. Franks, the top military commander in the region. Most U.S. aid programs are overseen by the State Department's U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). How the efforts of USAID and ORHA will mesh has not yet been worked out.

Pentagon involvement in relief efforts— and postwar reconstruction generally— has caused concern in U.S. civilian aid agencies, United Nations agencies, and nongovernmental groups, some of which object to any suggestion that they are working under the authority of an occupying power. (Click here for an organizational diagram of the Department of Defense Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.)

What is the extent of U.N. involvement in relief?

President Bush has said that the United Nations will have a role to play in the provision of food, water, and other kinds of humanitarian aid. U.N. agencies are taking on those tasks, and U.N. officials have stressed the agencies under their control will operate independently of the United States.

At the same time, U.S. officials and leaders of other countries are at odds over U.N. participation in the longer-term process that will lead to creation of Iraq's postwar government. Pentagon officials have said the United States should control the process, free of U.N. input.

What U.N. agencies are involved in relief?

In the short term, the United Nations Security Council has voted to resume its major aid program for Iraq, the Oil for Food Program. Aid is also being provided through the United Nations' longstanding humanitarian agencies, such as the World Food Program, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees.

What is the Oil for Food program?

It allows Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil to pay for food, medicine, and other civilian needs. About $27 billion has been spent through the program since it was created by the United Nations in 1995, and experts estimate that, before the war began, 60 percent of Iraqis relied on Oil for Food for assistance. Iraq has been banned from engaging in most international trade under a strict sanctions regime imposed after its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Has the Oil for Food program delivered supplies to Iraq recently?

No. The United Nations suspended the program days before the war began, and the details of how it will restart are still being worked out. There is some $2.4 billion in funds "in the pipeline," but the authority to operate the program will expire in mid-May, time enough to provide just $110 million worth of food aid, according to the United Nations. A further extension will await another vote by the U.N. Security Council, which has the final say over the program.

How much aid is needed?

No one can say with certainty until experts can make local assessments. The most pressing needs, aid officials say, are shortages of clean water and medicine. Some relief organizations assume that they will have to feed all 27.1 million Iraqis for some months after the end of hostilities. The United Nations World Food Program plans to deliver 480,000 metric tons of food each month, once hostilities end and safety of food workers can be assured.

Why is clean water a problem?

Before the war, Iraq's water-purification system was unreliable; widespread electrical failures during the war have now put most of it out of commission. As a result, the population is at high risk for waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery.

What is the level of medical and food supplies?

Reports indicate that hospitals throughout the country are running out of supplies to treat the wounded. There are also some reports of looting at hospitals. Short-term supplies of food are relatively plentiful: most Iraqis appear to have enough stockpiled to last until the end of April, though aid officials predict serious shortages after that.

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