WASHINGTON — The White House estimated Monday that a war with Iraq could result in up to 2 million Iraqis becoming refugees either inside the country or beyond, but top Bush administration officials said that plans are well underway to meet such a humanitarian crisis.
To help international organizations such as UNICEF and nongovernmental agencies cope, the U.S. already has sent more than $25 million to such groups, the officials said. At the same time, food, shelter and medical supplies already are being "pre-positioned" in Kuwait, they said.
Under fire for not detailing its plans to deal with the likely humanitarian fallout from a war to unseat Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the White House assigned six senior administration officials to brief reporters and representatives of international relief organizations.
The White House made a special effort to invite members of the international press corps, a strategy intended especially to reach Arab audiences, who fear that a U.S.-led war could cause widespread misery.
The officials would not discuss in detail the political plan for imposing order in a post-Hussein Iraq. But Elliott Abrams, a senior National Security Council official, told reporters: "The general principle is to try to establish Iraqi responsibility for Iraq as soon as possible."
U.S. officials have been talking to allies for months about governing a postwar Iraq through a coalition of nations that would share the responsibility -- and the expense -- of rebuilding the country.
However, if the United States fails to win passage of a second resolution at the U.N. Security Council that authorizes the disarmament of Hussein's regime by force, it is prepared to go it alone. That would mean having the U.S. military run postwar Iraq for a short time before handing administration of the country to an American civilian. The goal would be to put Iraqis in charge of their government within two years.
In the event of a war, the initial humanitarian effort would be directed by retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who heads the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, officials said. His deputy, Ronald Adams, participated in Monday's briefings.
Abrams said the government has been "stockpiling blankets, water, ladders, shelter supplies, medicines, other relief items at this point to serve about a million people.... And we're trying to forward-deploy those stockpiles into the region." He also said about 3 million ration packages are being "pre-positioned."
Several relief organizations praised the White House for giving them a look at the planning for humanitarian assistance, but some urged the administration to share even more information.
"This was the beginning of a dialogue," said Kenneth H. Bacon, president of Refugees International. "But there's still not quite enough specificity as to what they're thinking of and what their priorities are."
Mary E. McClymont, head of InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S. nongovernmental organizations providing relief and development aid, agreed. She said the alliance looks forward to receiving from the administration "additional details ... so that humanitarian agencies can refine their own assistance plans."
The White House has said that President Bush does not intend for the U.S. military to play a lead role in relief activities but instead to facilitate such work. Officials have created a 60-member Disaster Assistance Response Team, said to be the largest of its kind in U.S. history. The team would enter areas of Iraq under the control of the U.S. and its allies and assess needs and coordinate relief efforts.
Abrams said military planning "has been tailored to try ... to minimize the impact on civilian populations."
But much, he said, depends on Hussein's regime. "Does it use weapons of mass destruction?" he asked. "Are there efforts against their own oil wells?"