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Humanitarian Crisis Brews

March 23, 2003|Judith Coburn | Judith Coburn, a journalist, has covered war and its effects on civilians in Indochina, Central America and the Middle East.

While the Pentagon trumpets its victorious race toward Baghdad, the death, starvation, disease and homelessness that war will inflict on Iraqi civilians goes unmentioned. In the rush to war, the Bush administration's plans for the impending humanitarian crisis are too little, too late.

A recent confidential U.N. planning report for humanitarian relief in a war-ravaged Iraq 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." Some 30% of Iraqi children under age 5 -- 1.25 million -- could face death from malnutrition, the report said.

International aid groups from Oxfam to Refugees International to the International Rescue Committee echo the U.N. report's alarm. "This won't be 1991 in the Gulf, not a war in the empty desert; it'll be a war for the cities and will engulf a people already vulnerable from 12 years of sanctions," said Erik Gustafson, a Desert Storm veteran who is executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. "Food would be the most urgent need," said Kenneth H. Bacon, president of Refugees International. "Iraqis could starve."

The United Nations predicts that military operations would jeopardize the food sources of 10 million Iraqis, nearly half the country's population, that only 39% 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 inside the country.

Yet, "All U.N. agencies have been facing severe funding constraints that are preventing them from reaching even minimum levels of preparedness," the report concludes.

And this scenario is only a "medium" -- not a "worst" -- case.

To compare, in the eight months after the Gulf War, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study, the deaths of 110,000 Iraqi civilians were linked 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 first Iraqi civilians to die in the latest conflict were in Iraqi cities, especially Baghdad, victims of the "shock and awe" of thousands of precision-guided bombs and missiles.Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said: "As hard as we try to limit civilian casualties, they will occur.... People get the idea that this could be antiseptic. Well, it's not going to be."

About 5,000 Iraqi civilians died in the bombing raids that began the 1991 war, according to the Census Bureau study. This time, the Pentagon aims to limit civilian casualties by varying bomb size, using different fuses and angles of attack to control blast and taking into account the timing of the assaults. The Pentagon has good reason to minimize civilian casualties. The Bush administration's planned democratic rehabilitation of Iraq cannot take place in a land of hostile civilians.

Still, some military critics remain skeptical about the Pentagon's faith in high-tech weaponry to limit civilian casualties. Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, an Army artillery officer for 31 years and now advisor to the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, said: "The U.S. military is known for its indiscriminate use of firepower.... I don't care how accurate the weapons; if you unleash the kind of barrage they're talking about, a lot of people will be killed.... We ripped up the infrastructure in Kosovo with 'smart' bombs [but] remember the Chinese embassy [in Belgrade and] the refugee column that was hit."

And Myers has admitted that just 60% to 70% of the bombs to be used in Iraq are "smart" and that 10% of them can be expected to go awry.

Last week, the Bush administration, after months of entreaties by the international aid community and Congress, disclosed a few details about its plans for humanitarian aid in Iraq. Three-million daily military rations have been sent to Iraq, enough, the administration claims, to feed Iraqi war refugees. Problem is, this is only enough food to feed the U.N.-estimated 2 million refugees, which the administration accepts, for a day and a half. Ramiro Lopes da Silva, the U.N.'s top official in Iraq, said these supplies, in addition to the World Food Program's stockpile of food for 250,000 for 10 weeks and extra rations distributed by the Iraqi government -- aren't enough. After six weeks, he said, "We will have to feed 10 million people. Eventually, we'll have to feed the entire population."

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