Critical humanitarian action for postwar Iraq is in disarray as the endgame approaches in Baghdad. Near-riots break out at feeding stations near Basra. Nobody can agree on how relief should be delivered and who should do it. This squabbling has gone on for months, while Iraq's civilians get by on food stocks set to run out by May Day.
The human costs of this war have not been so high as anticipated, but stemming imminent disaster now proves far more complicated than anyone realized. American troops entering Najaf arrived without the one thing residents needed - water, the supply of which had been cut for four days. Last week the Baghdad power grid failed, affecting public health facilities like hospitals and sewage treatment plants. The water system in Basra, a city of more than a million people, also failed. Together, dirty water could threaten nearly a fifth of Iraq's population with epidemic disease.
Aid and relief organizations, including UNICEF, the World Food Program and the UN high commissioner for refugees, anticipated this conflict by prepositioning resources and supplies in the region during the past six months. But the coalition's dash for Baghdad bypassed chaotic and violent urban areas, making organized distribution impossible. This will badly affect the people who need help most, especially if the capital endures a siege or a messy assault.
The end of April is a true dead line for Iraqi civilians. It is when their prewar food rations run out. If the coalition and the international community cannot figure out how to deliver hundreds of tons of food, water and medical supplies securely to the Iraqi people, they will soon starve, sicken and die.
Yet nobody agrees on what should be done and who should do it. A major cause of this myopia was the Pentagon, which coordinated nearly all prewar planning behind closed doors. Under international law, an occupying force is responsible for citizens in the defeated country. Yet the State Department and the Defense Department are still debating who should take the lead. Transparency in this process is as murky as the Tigris River, making it impossible for outside relief groups to plan ahead.
Refugees International joined other aid groups at prewar meetings held by the U.S. Agency for International Development to coordinate relief in the event of war. But USAID released no advance money to fund relief programs. The plans themselves were classified for fear they would leak war strategy. This intransigence merely complicated the aid community's efforts.
It's not as if the world lacked advance notice. Refugees International, with InterAction - a coalition of 165 relief organizations - started warning of humanitarian consequences of war last fall. UN agencies put out appeals for funding that remain unfulfilled by donor states. Physicians for Social Responsibility took part in a mission to Iraq in January, determining that the medical and public health infrastructure could not cope with war. Baghdad hospitals, occupied with civilian casualties from coalition bombing, are now running low on crucial supplies.
Last week the administration announced new funding for UN and relief agencies. But the late funding commitment could mean a late start for relief efforts. The United States needs to cede control over relief efforts to the UN and international aid organizations and let them into the country as soon as the UN finds it safe. The military needs to ensure safe access for the relief organizations so that they can organize secure distributions of food, water and medicine. For the tough pockets of resistance that may persist, the coalition military must be ready to provide food, water and medical assistance to besieged populations.
The United States has worked hard to hold civilian casualties to a minimum during the war. Now it must do more to prevent deaths from disease and starvation afterward.
Robert K. Musil is executive director and CEO of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Kenneth H. Bacon is president of Refugees International.
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