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Analysis: Aid Agencies Gearing Up For Humanitarian Consequences of Potential U.N. Invasion of Iraq

All Things Considered: January 13, 2003

Humanitarian Consequences of War in Iraq


In Iraq, government and foreign aid organizations are stepping up preparations to deal with the humanitarian consequences of an invasion. A recent UN report predicted that a US-led military campaign to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would threaten millions of Iraqis with hunger and disease. From Baghdad, NPR's Kate Seelye reports that many ordinary Iraqis are also preparing for the worst.

KATE SEELYE reporting:

Amidst the hustle and bustle of Baghdad's busy Sharje market(ph), life appears to go on as usual.


SEELYE: Street vendors hawk cheap underwear and batteries to thrifty shoppers looking for a bargain. But scratch the surface here and it becomes evident that war is very much on people's minds. Widow Nasir Abaz(ph) prices a kerosene lamp, but at a hefty $25, decides it's more than she can afford, even though, she says, her family of 11 needs one.

Ms. NASIR ABAZ (Widow): (Foreign language spoken)

SEELYE: `If there's a war,' says Abaz, `electricity will be the first thing to go.' Vendor Kareem Rahdi(ph) says the price of kerosene lamps has gone up by almost 30 percent in the past month. Rahdi survived the 1991 Gulf War, which led to power and water cuts that lasted more than a month. This war, he predicts, will be even uglier.

Mr. KAREEM RAHDI (Vendor): (Foreign language spoken)

SEELYE: `It will be a humanitarian disaster,' says Rahdi. `They'll hit us with very large bombs.'

A confidential UN report posted on a Cambridge University Web site predicts that an extended US bombing campaign could result in widespread destruction of electricity grids, water systems and other infrastructure. It also predicts the breakdown of Iraq's food distribution system, and anticipates hunger and disease for millions of Iraqis. Margaret Hassan of CARE International in Baghdad says the situation for Iraqis will just go from bad to worse.

Ms. MARGARET HASSAN (CARE International): They're living in a crisis now. This will be just a greater crisis.

SEELYE: Hassan says Iraqis have never fully recovered from the 1991 war. Many sanitation systems and electrical grids are not yet fully repaired. In addition, she says, after 12 years of economic sanctions, 40 percent of all Iraqis are dependent on monthly government-supplied food rations to survive. One of her greatest fears, she says, is that war will disrupt the distribution of rations.

Ms. HASSAN: If they run out of food and the food ration system breaks down, what are these 40 percent going to do? Immediately they will be vulnerable. They're vulnerable already.

SEELYE: Hassan says she welcomes the government's recent decision to hand out two months' worth of food rations in advance, but she says much more needs to be done. She says CARE has ordered 50 giant rubber bladders, each holding more than a thousand gallons of drinking water. Over at the International Committee of the Red Cross, spokesman Roland Huguenin-Benjamin says his group is busy assessing the needs of local hospitals as well as how best to get material into Iraq from neighboring countries quickly. Huguenin-Benjamin says ICRC has already brought in medical kits to handle anticipated civilian casualties.

Mr. ROLAND HUGUENIN-BENJAMIN (Spokesman, International Committee of the Red Cross): A lot of people live very close to military installations. So their likeliness of having collateral damage is very high, as it was in '91.

SEELYE: But Huguenin-Benjamin admits that preparations have been hampered by political sensitivities. He says many aid groups feel constrained because they don't want to appear as though they're participating in the buildup to war. He says there's also concern about alarming the local population.

Mr. HUGUENIN-BENJAMIN: If we make a certain move, people will take it for granted that if the Red Cross is doing that, it means then the war is inevitable and is going to happen very soon, so we better be ready.

SEELYE: And, says Huguenin-Benjamin, ICRC and the other dozen or so aid organizations here are preparing discreetly for a war that many are hoping won't happen. Kate Seelye, NPR News, Baghdad.

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