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Iraqi humanitarian crisis seen

Humanitarian groups are concerned about aiding civilians impacted by the conflict.


"Some of the most vulnerable people you're trying to reach are children who are already in need of care."

—Jonathan Frerichs, Luthern World Relief

As the first bombing in the war with Iraq began Wednesday night, humanitarian groups and relief organizations said they are increasingly concerned about the needs of civilians affected by the conflict.

"The plight of the Iraqi children and the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis over the past 12 years of sanctions regime weighs heavily on our hearts. In the present situation, we strongly affirm long-standing humanitarian principles of unconditional access to people in need," according to a statement issued by the World Council of Churches last month.

"Both the Department of State and the Pentagon have been involved in contingency planning for post-war relief and reconstruction," said Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the State Department.

Currently there are no American humanitarian groups legally operating within Iraq because of restrictions put in place by the U.S. Treasury Department during implementation of U.N. sanctions. In order for Americans to enter Iraq in accordance with U.S. law, they must first file an application with the Treasury.

The current humanitarian crisis

"You asked me to travel, as a matter of urgency, to Iraq. It should be said at once that nothing that we had seen or read had prepared us for the devastation which has befallen the country. Most means of modern life have been destroyed. The authorities are as yet scarcely able to measure the dimensions of the calamity, much less respond to its consequences. The conflict has wrought near apocalyptic results. Iraq has been relegated to a pre-industrial age."

These comments were made by Marti Ahtisaari, a U.N. development officer, following a trip to Iraq after the Persian Gulf War.

The picture Ahtisaari painted of the country was not a promising one, and this picture has become increasingly more bleak over the course of the past decade, according to several humanitarian groups. More than a million people are believed to have died as a result of malnutrition and disease.

An internal United Nations document, entitled "Likely Humanitarian Scenarios," estimates a total of 7.4 million people will need assistance following a military assault.

The report concludes that "the bulk of the (Iraqi) population is now totally dependent on the Government of Iraq for a majority, if not all, of their basic needs and, unlike the situation in 1991, they have no way of coping if they cannot access them: the sanctions regime, if anything, has served to increase dependence on the Government as almost the sole provider."

"[T]here are some 60 per cent of the [Iraqi] population -- 16 million people -- highly dependent on the monthly "food basket." They "consume" all the commodities provided (by consuming or selling part to mitigate other needs), as they have no other means with which to provide for other essential requirements," according to the report.

And despite the similarities in population sizes in Afghanistan and Iraq (26 million in the former, 26.5 in the latter), and despite similarly impoverished populations in both countries, comparing a wartime humanitarian situation in present-day Iraq and the situation in wartime Afghanistan is also unwarranted because Afghans are primarily a rural, self-sufficient people, whereas Iraqis are mainly urbanites who lack the means to support themselves if an already brittle infrastructure is destroyed.

"It's already a crisis situtation, and the war is going to turn it into a catastrophe. There's no question about that," said the Rev. Ray Buchanan, executive director of Stop Hunger Now.

Getting help directly to the Iraqis has been Buchanan's intention since December, when he made a trip there to personally survey the situation. Buchanan decided to support organizations that were already doing a good job distributing food and supplies in Iraq.

He chose the Middle East Council of Churches and the Islamic Relief Agency, and has provided funds to both -- so far about $10,000, with another $10,000 on the way.

"This is a drop in the bucket," he said, "but the need is immense at this point. There's nothing too little to make a difference."

Buchanan points out that $20 can purchase an emergency food box, sufficient to feed a family of four for a month.

Many faith groups, under the auspices of Church World Service, are also working through the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), according to Donna Derr, associate director of the Emergency Response Program.

The U.N. High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) is an organization devised to deal with situations precisely like the one that may unfold in post-war Iraq.

But according to Rob Breen, a UNHCR liaison officer, his organization does not yet have the necessary funding to deal with the potentially catastrophic refugee scenario predicted in the "Likely Humanitarian Scenarios" document.

Iraq's neighbors had better be prepared to take in and feed refugees, Breen said, since the help the UNHCR can provide, at the current level of funding, is going to be minimal.

The Kuwaitis, Saudis and Iranians "need to look within their own resources and not assume that the international community is going to take the lead in the situation," he said, "because we are not going to be able to do that."

Rick Augsburger, director for the Church World Service (CWS) emergency response program, is not optimistic about the humanitarian fallout of a possible war on Iraq. To those who think the outcome will be similar to relief efforts in Afghanistan and Kosovo, Ausburger pointed out some unwelcome facts.

The first, and most significant, relates to the readiness and presence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In Kosovo and Afghanistan, "there were already a number of NGOs working in those countries," he said. In today's Iraq, however, that presence is almost zero.

Augsburger recently returned from a trip to Amman, Jordan, where he met with the Middle East Council of Churches and the Mennonite Central Committee. CWS has been closely consulting with these groups regarding Iraq since June 2002.

Augsburger is convinced the humanitarian effort will have to be massive and it will have to come from many different groups.

"There's no single agency that can meet these needs alone," Augsburger said.

"Given the potential scope of the crisis, it's going to take the entire humanitarian community to supply whatever needs may arise. It's going to have to be a collaborative effort."

To date, CWS has sent more than $3.2 million in aid to Iraq, and it currently has two major relief efforts underway.

The first program entails getting together tents, blankets and personal hygiene kits.

The other program aims to raise $1 million for the purchase of basic medical supplies for children.

The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) runs its Iraq relief program out of Amman, Jordan, where it has been stationed since 1995. It has distributed more than $4.2 million in aid to Iraqis in the last decade.

Kevin King, who handles humanitarian planning on Iraq, said the MCC has been stepping up relief efforts since last summer. Instead, he sees any change in activity as "a matter of increasing our programming."

The MCC is also involved in the "All Our Children Campaign," a program that aims to raise $1 million for medical assistance for Iraqi children, undertaken in collaboration with CWS, the National Council of Churches, Stop Hunger Now, Sojourners and Jubilee Partners.

Since last summer, a major MCC project, he said, has been to gather together hygiene kits, of which 8,000 have been distributed. Another 4,000 are being stored in warehouses at the port of Aquaba, Jordan.

King's volunteers have reported a steady stream of Iraqi refugees for months now, about 7,000 a month crossing the border into Jordan. The border, however, has now been officially closed.

Border closings are bad news, said Jonathan Frerichs, a spokesman for Lutheran World Relief.

"That's troubling because some of the most vulnerable people you're trying to reach are children who are already in need of care," he said.

But if the refugees can't get across the border, then they can't get to the aid workers. That means they will have to rely on whatever air drops provided by the U.S. military, or on whatever materials are still available in Iraq.

Frerichs said LWR sent in a major shipment of goods last week. And, while LWR partner churches in Iraq have set up eight major relief centers as well as 44 smaller ones (church basement-like arrangements), he said the question is how future aid will make it to these relief centers.

Oxfam International is another group planning to take part in possible wartime humanitarian efforts.

"We've recently sent teams to provide a border assessment of Iraq," said Lyndsay Cruz, a spokesperson for Oxfam. "We're preparing for all contingencies."

One conclusion of the assessment, she said, is not news particularly: "The people who are living in Iraq are obviously suffering from malnutrition and disease."

The Oxfam report predicts that refugees streaming into Iran will have a hard time finding help, since Iran is already supporting "a heavy burden of refugees" -- more than 3 million -- "the largest number (of refugees) in the world."

"The Iranian government will need full international assistance to cope with a further humanitarian crisis on its borders," according to the report.

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Related Links:

Church World Service

Stop Hunger Now

Lutheran World Relief

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