The Ministry of Defence yesterday admitted the electricity system that powers water and sanitation for the Iraqi people could be a military target, despite warnings that its destruction would cause a humanitarian tragedy.
While military planners insist they have taken into account the humanitarian threat in the event of hostilities breaking out, a spokesman for the MoD admitted decisions may have to be made where a potential target had a "dual use".
But any plan to bomb Iraq's electricity system will anger aid charities, whose warnings were repeated by the Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, last week.
Ms Short, who is to take up the matter with the Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon later this week, said that "any bombing to take out electronic capacity and thus disarm anti-aircraft capacity could present a danger to electrics and damage water and sanitation facilities as a consequence".
"There would be the resultant danger that people would not have access to water and that sanitation facilities would be even worse than they are now. Clearly, preparations need to be made against that eventuality so that the health of the people of Iraq does not suffer."
While the MoD would not be drawn on possible targets they insisted "every care would be taken in all circumstances at every planning level that all targets were military targets and there was very little chance of injury to civilians or non-military targets. However, a spokesman added: "I can obviously see the difficulty in this because a target seen as a military target can also have, sadly, implications for civilian populations as well."
Ms Short has warned that on top of the threat to the water and sanitation system the Oil For Food programme would also be disrupted by military action at a time when millions of Iraqis were dependent on it.
"It is a massive system and most of the people of Iraq depend on it, not simply for adequate supplies but in the case of Baghdad-controlled Iraq for the very basics of human survival," she said.
"Accordingly, any action needs to be very organised and calm, ensuring that the capacity of the system is maintained or a replacement system is put into place very quickly."
However, the Government has admitted there has been only limited contingency planning for the humanitarian effects of military action on Iraq. While the United States announced last week it would make available $15m (£9m) in aid, the British Government has yet to announce any additional funding for the humanitarian effort.
Talks with Iraq's neighbours about the housing of up to a million refugees have been non-existent, the Government has admitted.
And the United Nations High Commission for Refugees said last week that plans are "in terms of scope ... not really on a large scale".
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Lt###