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AFTER THE WAR

U.N. Officials Warn of a Humanitarian Crisis

Disaster looms if basic services aren't restored, say relief organizers returning to Iraq after the war. Critics fault their response so far.

May 04, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Returning to Baghdad for the first time since the start of the war, top U.N. relief officials warned Saturday of a possible humanitarian crisis in Iraq and faced criticism over the little humanitarian aid they have provided so far.

About 60% of Iraqis are considered fully dependent on aid from the United Nations' "oil-for-food" program, put in place after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Nearly two months have passed since program workers last distributed food.

"The conditions for the potential development of a humanitarian disaster still exist," said Ramiro Lopes da Silva, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, in his first press briefing. "It is important that we reactivate the systems that were in place to provide the basic services to the population."

Torben Due, who represents the World Food Program in Iraq, said the U.N. organization hoped to distribute 500,000 tons of food in June, and 600,000 tons a month in July and August -- the largest distributions ever by the agency.

The massive food shortage many predicted before the war has not developed, but still could, Due said, adding: "We are trying to bring in the food before they have a crisis."

A few blocks from Saddam Hussein's main presidential palace, where the U.S. is designing an interim government for Iraq, Baghdad residents expressed impatience Saturday with the lack of food, water and electricity.

"Where is the aid?" asked Abdel Hussein Ali, a retired Iraqi army officer. "People are hungry. They're getting angry."

About 870 U.N. officials who oversaw several thousand Iraqi employees fled Iraq on March 18, two days before the war started. Along with other aid organizations, U.N. humanitarian agencies have been slow to return to a country where gunfire rings out day and night.

About two dozen U.N. officials began darting into southern Iraq from Kuwait and Jordan over the past week, often leaving the country again before dark. Twenty, including Lopes da Silva, arrived Thursday, just a day and a half after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave the go-ahead for some key officials to return, Lopes da Silva said. Officials are scheduled to return to some northern cities in the next week.

With more than 750 overseers still away, however, the U.N. has been conspicuously absent in the nascent relief efforts.

The U.N. Security Council's opposition to the invasion, followed by what some see as the world body's ineffectual and slow return to the country, has elicited harsh criticism from many who supported the ousting of Hussein.

"The Americans are helping. The British are helping. Where is the rest of the world?" asked Baghdad resident Amira Sadoon.

The U.N. is not alone in garnering critics, however. With telephone, water and power systems down, hospitals looted and Baghdad police officers slated to return to their beats only today, many believe the U.S. planned much better for the war than for its aftermath.

Still, Lopes da Silva was candid about the U.N.'s perceived shortcomings.

"No matter what the image we had on the 18th of March or the image we have today, our image will be made" on the basis of what the U.N. does from now on, he said. And if the job isn't adequate, "the Iraqis can tell us to move" out.

Also Saturday, the United States appointed Ali Shnan Janabi, a former Baath Party member, to head the nation's Health Ministry.

The appointment of Janabi, an optometrist and former No. 3 official at the ministry, reflects the extent to which the Americans sometimes must rely on the expertise of people with ties to the former regime.

Steven Browning, the Bush administration's representative to the ministry, said Janabi "is not associated with criminal activities or human rights abuses or weapons of mass destruction. So we are happy to work with him."

As thousands of Baghdad's armed and U.S.-authorized police officers prepared to return to the field, the city's interim police chief said he was retiring after less than two weeks on the job. Zuhair Abdul Razaq, a 36-year police veteran appointed April 22 by a U.S. civil affairs battalion, said he was stepping down to make way for a younger leader and to spend more time with his family.

In an effort to bolster security nationwide, Iraq will be divided into three sectors and patrolled by a 10-nation force led by the U.S., Britain and Poland, American and Polish officials said. The stabilization force, which will include 20,000 Americans, is separate from the 135,000 U.S.-led combat troops still in Iraq, Reuters reported, quoting an unnamed senior U.S. official.

France and Germany, which opposed the Iraq war, halfheartedly endorsed the security plan at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers Saturday on the Greek island of Kastellorizon off the Turkish coast.

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Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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