Any military attack on Iraq would disrupt or even shatter an efficient food-rationing network that provides for the bulk of the country's 24 million people, aid experts warn.
"This is going to be a major undertaking for us" if there is a conflict, predicted Khaled Mansour of the United Nations World Food Program, which is stockpiling thousands of tonnes of wheat and other staples in the countries that border Iraq. "This is not going to be a small crisis from the humanitarian perspective. The need will be huge, because the population is already highly vulnerable."
Bolstered by foreign contributions but primarily funded under the UN's $2.5-billion (U.S.) oil-for-food program, Iraq's rationing system is administered through more than 40,000 distribution centers and has drawn widespread praise, both at home and abroad.
For a monthly cost of about 25 cents per family, citizens are entitled to an allotment of flour, rice, lentils, beans, powdered milk, cooking oil, tea, salt, detergent and soap, rations that almost all Iraqis collect.
The oil-for-food program was introduced six years ago in an effort to alleviate the humanitarian cost of the international embargo imposed after Baghdad's disastrous 1990 invasion of Kuwait. According to the UN, as many as 60 per cent of Iraqis remain wholly reliant on the handouts, among them virtually all the 3.5 million Kurds who live in a semi-autonomous, crescent-shaped slice of northern Iraq.
"For most people, the rations are enough," an Iraqi government worker who earns about $10 a month said in a recent interview in Baghdad. "Things have improved greatly since the oil-for-food program started, and nobody in Iraq goes hungry."
In preparation for war, Iraqi authorities recently began handing out two or three months worth of rations at a time. The UN's humanitarian agencies also met in Geneva this week to map out a plan to cope with war.
"Many people are really living hand-to-mouth, and any war is going to deepen that," said John Watson, president of Care Canada.
President Saddam Hussein also sounds worried. Last week, in a rare admission of weakness, he acknowledged that food shortages could be an Achilles' heel for his 375,000-strong army.
"I don't see any difficulties in the battle unless the fighter says he has no bread or no water to drink," Mr. Hussein said.
The timing could scarcely be worse for a major food emergency in Iraq. According to the U.S. Development Agency, global grain stocks are down to 371 million tonnes, compared to 501 million tonnes two years ago.
Civilians at risk
A new war in Iraq could result in the breakdown of the country's fragile support system. According to United Nations estimates:
Three million people could face hunger due to interruptions in the rationing network.
Transportation and electricity would be interrupted, as would the export of crude oil and petroleum
Water and sanitation would be affected, potentially causing epidemics of cholera and dysentery.
As many as 500,000 people could be injured in the fighting and require medical attention.
900,000 Iraqi refugees would need assistance.
© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc