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A humanitarian crisis.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The first shipments of humanitarian relief have reached southern Iraq from Kuwait and Jordan, a small beginning for the immense humanitarian aid effort that will be necessary to counter the death, starvation, disease and homelessness that war will inflict on Iraqi civilians.

As the recent conflict in Afghanistan showed with stark and painful clarity, keeping civilian populations supplied with food, water, medicine and shelter is of paramount importance.

A recent confidential U.N. planning report predicts that ``the collapse of essential services in Iraq could lead to a humanitarian emergency of proportions well beyond the capacity of U.N. agencies and other aid organizations.'' Nearly a third of Iraqi children under age 5 - 1.25 million - could face death from malnutrition, the report warned.

The United Nations report also said military operations could jeopardize the food sources of 10 million Iraqis, 40 percent of the country's population, that only 39 percent of them would have water even on a rationed basis, that shortages of fuel and power in cities would shut down water and sewage systems, that up to 1.45 million refugees could try to escape Iraq during the war and that some 900,000 could flee their homes but remain inside the country.

If the primary purpose of the U.S.-led invasion is indeed the liberation of Iraqi people, the coalition and other willing partners must make certain that they improve, not worsen, the lot of the Iraqi people. Liberating Iraqis to mass starvation and disease will not win the hearts and minds of these long-suffering people - or those of the war's many critics in the Mideast, who will be swift to blame the United States if a humanitarian disaster materializes.

Hunger and disease are no strangers to Iraq. Before the current war, just under two-thirds of Iraq's 24 million people relied on food assistance and other humanitarian aid for survival because international sanctions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War had ravaged the economy.

Now international relief agencies and the United Nations are scrambling to prepare for what World Food Program spokesman Trevor Rowe predicts will be the ``largest humanitarian operation in history." Officials representing aid groups predict it eventually will require the feeding of nearly the entire population of Iraq.

Political disputes must not be undermine this effort. After a week of heated debates about the proper use of Iraqi oil revenues, the United Nations Security Council reinstated its controversial oil-for-food program with Iraq, giving control of the program to Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the next 45 days.

The program swaps Baghdad's oil profits for food provided to needy Iraqis, and was suspended when the war began. U.N. officials hope that revamping the program will expedite the delivery of humanitarian relief to Iraq. Nearly two-thirds percent of Iraq's people rely on oil-for-food relief to feed themselves.

France and other countries had argued that the resolution's wording would legitimize the United States' decision to go to war. That may be true, but there's no time for quibbling over political nuances when Iraqis will soon be starving.

The United Nations also issued an appeal for $2.2 billion from international donors to prevent widespread malnutrition and possible outbreaks of disease. The United States should lead the way in contributing to this fund, and the rest of the world should heed Annan's exhortation to respond ``swiftly and generously'' in meeting the needs of the Iraqi people.

U.N. members should also remember what happened after the last Gulf War. Eight months after that war, a U.S. government study linked the deaths of 110,000 Iraqi civilians to the paralysis of the country's urban infrastructure and lack of food, water and electricity. The study estimated that more than 10,000 refugees died from disease and starvation.

The unarmed people of Iraq will once again suffer devastating losses if the international community does not come to their rescue - and come quickly.
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Title Annotation:Massive relief effort needed to help Iraqi people; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Mar 31, 2003
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