The Other War: Iraq's Humanitarian Crisis

Until two missiles fell on a Bagdad market a week into the war, Iraqi civilians had been invisible in the high-tech production of "The War" brought to you by the American media. Some 17 men, women and children died in that raid and close to 40 people were wounded. Although definitive casualty figures are impossible to come by, combining reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), international aid groups and European reporters in Bagdad suggest over 100 Iraqis have been killed and several hundred wounded by Anglo-American attacks in the first week of the war.

Also neglected by the American media have been the ravages of war besides death: starvation, disease and homelessness which are building to a crisis as the war begins to engulf Iraqi cities where most people live. Complicating the humanitarian crisis has been a behind the scenes international struggle against the Bush administration's militarization of humanitarian aid.

A confidential United Nations planning report for humanitarian relief in wartime Iraq written last summer is alarming reading. It predicts that "the collapse of essential services in Iraq...could lead to a humanitarian emergency of proportions well beyond the capacity of UN agencies and other aid agencies." Thirty percent of Iraqi children -- 1.25 million -- could face death from malnutrition, the report says.

International aid groups from Oxfam to Refugees International to the International Rescue Committee echo the alarm. "This isn't 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 twelve years of sanctions," says Erik Gustafson, a Desert Storm veteran and executive director of EPIC, the Center for Education and Peace in Iraq. "Food would be the most urgent need," says Kenneth Bacon, President of Refugees International. "Iraqis could starve."

The UN report predicts that 10 million Iraqis would have insecure access to food because of military operations, that only 39 percent of Iraqis would have access to 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 may try to escape Iraq during the war and that 900,000 may flee their homes inside the country. "All UN agencies have been facing severe funding constraints that are preventing them from reaching even minimum levels of preparedness," the report concludes.

And this is only what disaster planning specialists call a "medium" case -- not a "worst" case -- scenario.

One hundred ten thousand Iraqi civilians died in the eight months following the brief 1991 Gulf War from the paralysis of the urban infrastructure and lack of food, water and electricity. More than 10,000 refugees died from disease and food shortages.

So far the Pentagon has not targeted Iraq's urban infrastructure. Pentagon officials and even some private aid experts argue that since the Pentagon is expecting to run Iraq for at least several years after the war, that it really does want to minimize civilian casualties -- rather than face a hostile people who've lost family to American bombs and a decimated infrastructure. But now Anglo-American troops are being drawn into the cities and Iraqis are using classic urban guerilla tactics of basing troops and antiaircraft in residential neighborhoods, hospitals and schools. More and more unarmed Iraqi civilians will be slaughtered as these targets are attacked.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers softened up the American public for the carnage: "People are going to die. As hard as we try to limit civilian casualties it will occur. We need to condition people that this is war. People get the idea this is going to be antiseptic. Well, it's not going to be," he told reporters at a Pentagon press conference before the infamous "shock and awe" campaign began.

Thirty-five hundred Iraqis died in the intense bombing raids that began the first Gulf War. This time, the Pentagon says it is limiting civilian casualties by varying the size of bombs to minimize surrounding damage, controlling the blast by using different fuses and angles of attack and picking the time of day or night the target is hit. As for hitting chemical and biological weapons facilities or ammo dumps, which maimed both Iraqis and American soldiers in the 1991 Gulf War, the Pentagon says this time they'll use smaller weapons like mines and restrict access to the sites.

But Myers also admits that at most only 70 percent of the bombs to be used in Iraq will be "smart" and that 10 percent of those can be expected to go "dumb"--misfire or go awry.

Military critics like Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, an Army field artillery officer for 31 years and now advisor to the Vietnam Veterans Foundation, are still dubious.

"The U.S. military is known for its excessive use of firepower," argues Gard. "I'm extremely concerned about Iraq. I don't care how accurate the weapons, if you unleash the kind of barrage they [have], a lot of people will be killed. Sure, we or the Israelis can hit a car in the open desert but using high explosives in Bagdad. We ripped up the infrastructure in Kosovo with 'smart' bombs. Remember the Chinese Embassy, the refugee column that was hit? When we ran out of military targets we went on to civilian ones. The factories that spewed toxic chemicals on people. The pilots even have a name for it -- 'going downtown.' Then the Pentagon talks about hitting 'dual use targets,' say a shoe factory because soldiers and civilians both wear shoes. Well, there's nothing in the Geneva accords about that."

Surviving the war may not mean surviving, though. Even before the catastrophe of war, 12 years of sanctions have decimated Iraq. The UN says that one million Iraqi children under 5 years old suffer from malnutrition, that five million Iraqis don't have adequate safe water or sanitation and that 16 million are dependent on the UN oil-for-food program administered by the Iraqi government. The defeat of Saddam Hussein's government will lead to the collapse of the food rationing system, the UN fears. The oil-for-food program, which fed 60 percent of Iraqis, was halted for twelve days.

The UN reports from Basra that after electricity was cut in the first days of the war, aid experts were only able to restore water to 40 percent of the city's 1.3 million residents. Diarrhea has already broken out among children there and cholera is a threat because people are drinking dirty water. Food shipments to Basra have been delayed day after day because the Iraqis are seeding the harbor with mines and the city is not in Anglo-American hands.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Friday asked for $2.2 billion to meet the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. But the Bush Administration's decision to put the Pentagon rather than civilians in charge of the American aid has caused an international political crisis. Only about $34 million has been raised for UN efforts because the EU and donor countries that oppose the war do not want to be associated with the American war effort.

"The perception that the U.S. government will act unilaterally against Iraq has greatly chilled humanitarian donations to the UN and NGO relief agencies," Sandra Mitchell of the International Rescue Committee told a Foreign Relations Committee hearing recently.

Because of Pentagon control, U.S. humanitarian aid is interwoven with war plans and many planning documents have been classified, aid groups charge, making coordination with U.S. operations impossible. Oxfam International, one of the world's most effective relief organizations, is refusing to accept aid from "belligerents" like the U.S. and British governments.

"We refuse the money because it implies support for military action in Iraq," says Oxfam head Jeremy Hobbs, who says the group will work with the UN and the European Union.

Annan this week stiffly reminded the U.S. that under the Geneva Accords "those in effective control of any territory are responsible for meeting the humanitarian needs of the population."

The oil-for-food program, which fed 60 percent of the Iraqi population, has been halted because of the war. A major diplomatic battle has erupted in the UN Security Council between coalition supporters and opponents over control of the program and future UN aid to Iraq. France, Russia and Germany have vowed they will veto any reconstruction plan that gives the U.S. and Britain a dominant role in Iraq's future. And the issue of UN involvement in Iraq has strained the coalition, with Tony Blair battling with President Bush for a larger UN role.

While the Bush Administration claims it will work through international aid groups, it (along with the UN) refused to lift sanctions before the war to allow these groups to prepare in Iraq for a humanitarian crisis. The Iraqi government threw up roadblocks in the Kurdish areas of the north. As a result -- unlike in Kosovo and Afganistan -- only the ill-financed, understaffed UN has been able to get food, medicine and shelter ready ahead of the crisis.

International aid groups have been forced to set up operations in Jordan, Iran and Kuwait. No preparations have been made to protect Iraqis or aid workers against chemical and biological weapons if Saddam Hussein uses them. Kurds, who were blasted with CBW in 1988 by Saddam Hussein, pled last month with the UN to send them gas masks. But the UN said it didn't have the money and sending them would violate sanctions.

The Bush administration's response to the impending humanitarian crisis in Iraq has been too little, too late. The new DOD controlled Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid (ORHA) wasn't even created until January 20. Only last week did the White House ask Congress for $2.5 billion for humanitarian aid, a miserly sum because it covers repairs to Iraqi infrastructure and government services as well as food, water and medicine.

Pentagon plans to arm soldiers with food and medicine to pass out to "grateful" Iraqis have proven to be fantasies. No Iraqi city is "secure" enough for such aid supplies to be distributed. But they wouldn't be enough anyway. The Pentagon ordered three million daily military rations to be sent to Iraq, enough, the Bush administration claimed, to feed Iraqis displaced by the war. Administration planners use UN estimates that there will be at least two million refugees. So this meager ration -- food for only one-and-a-half days for 2 million -- is laughable.

So far, few refugees have reached camps outside Iraq. But the ICRC says 450,000 Iraqis have fled their homes inside the country and many more may be homeless when fighting overtakes the cities. The UN's top official in Iraq, Ramino Lopes da Silva, says that food supplies -- including the World Food Program's stockpile of food for 250,000 for 10 weeks and extra rations distributed by the Iraqi government -- aren't nearly enough. Lopes da Silva predicts that after six weeks, "We will have to feed 10 million people. Eventually we'll have to feed the entire population." Although the Iraqi government has been distributing extra food, many Iraqis are so desperately poor that they are selling the extra war rations, aid groups report.

And there's little sign that the Pentagon, fixated on war, understands how much social chaos may occur during and after the war. "The biggest civilian casualties of the 1991 Gulf War were after the war," says EPIC's Erik Gustafson. "Thirty-five to fifty thousand Iraqis died in fighting amongst themselves. Already the Turks are on a collision course with the Kurds."

While some aid groups, like the IRC, disagree that Iraqi ethnic groups like the Kurds and the Shiia are waiting to carve up Iraq after the war, most agree that a post-war lawless state would offer a rich opportunity for score settling. They doubt American military forces have the sophistication, skills and training to control a break down in social order. They have not been able to in Afganistan and Kosovo.

President Bush, Mr. Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein are waging their jihad. And they've made it nearly impossible for anyone to help the victims of their fanaticism -- the unarmed people of Iraq.

Judith Coburn is a journalist who has covered war and its effect on civilians in Indochina, Central America and the Middle East.


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