U.S., aid groups differ on Iraqi refugees

By NICHOLAS M. HORROCK and PAMELA HESS   |   Feb. 24, 2003 at 9:37 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- The United States estimates that the Iraq war could create two million refugees, including thousands already displaced within Iraq or living as refugees abroad, a White House panel reported Monday.

It said that already some 750,000 people have already fled Iraq and approximately 800,000 have been displaced from their homes within the country.

Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council's Middle East director said suggestions that, in addition to refugees, a war against Iraq could leave half a million civilians wounded and 100,000 dead were "just speculation."

"We go into a situation where we recognize that military action in Iraq, if it is necessary, could have adverse humanitarian consequences," said Abrams. He said that the United States has been devising a plan for several months to help international and non-governmental agencies deal with the impending crisis.

But many aid and humanitarian groups have accused the U. S. government of not coordinating their planning, and of committing insufficient resources.

The United Nations says a war could leave close to 5 million people reliant on food aid. Eighty percent of the Iraqi population -- 16 million people -- relies completely on government food rations, a distribution system that could collapse in a week if there is a war, according to the group Stop Hunger Now. The remaining 8 million also receive government food but have other sources as well.

At a briefing for reporters, Andrew Natsios, chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development said the Bush administration has been planning for these developments since last September and sharply denied suggestions that there was not enough food, medicine, clothing and water to handle the vast human outflows from the fighting.

Natsios said that the United States has already spent $26.5 million in preparing for a possible refugee crisis and that another $52 million was moving "through the procurement system right now." He said that the government has met regularly with non-governmental aid groups and others on the problem.

But those same groups charge that consultation is coming too little, too late.

Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International -- and a former Pentagon spokesman -- is frustrated by the refusal of military officials to coordinate their humanitarian planning with aid groups like his. He says groups that have tried to send proposals to the Pentagon to handle part of the relief work have been rebuffed.

"People tried to send their proposals to the Pentagon but they said it was 'premature' -- that no decision had been made to go to war so 'how can we have plans for post-conflict reconstruction?' -- which is total bull----," Bacon said.

Natsios said that USAID has pre-positioned food and other supplies in four nearby countries in the region, but to disclose these countries might compromise operational military plans.

It is this kind of secrecy which leaves aid groups frustrated.

"The humanitarian plans were fairly well coordinated in Afghanistan. Here it's been classified," said Mark Bartolini, regional director for Middle East operations for the International Rescue Committee. "We're not even sure what their plans are ... the non-governmental organizations have really been hamstrung."

Kuwait is clearly one country where thousands of refugees will end up and which has already designated facilities for humanitarian work. Jordan and Turkey could also face major inflows.

"Our concern is there is window to prepare non-governmental organizations and the United Nations in case something goes awry and that is not being done," Bartolini said.

According to the panel, the military has been humanitarian mapping which will try to help it identify areas where civilians are and areas of Iraq's extraordinary cultural heritage. The military will distribute the humanitarian meals as it did in Afghanistan. The actual care of refugees will be conducted by established international non-government organizations. A 60 member team of experts will be sent to the region to coordinate humanitarian efforts, Abram's said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Reserve Officers Association in January he planned to appoint retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner to coordinate humanitarian relief for Iraq, but Garner has yet to be officially designated, according to Pentagon and relief organization sources.

Garner headed Operation Provide Comfort after the Persian Gulf War, providing relief to Kurdish minorities in northern Iraq, but his appointment sits uneasily with the relief community.

"He is too closely allied with the Pentagon. We certainly would like to see a more independent" chief for the effort, said Bartolini.

But Bacon said Garner -- who already has a large staff at the Pentagon and served with Rumsfeld on a space commission several years ago -- is a good pick.

"There are huge divisions within humanitarian community over the military and how involved it is. I guess my view is military is going to control the process anyway," Bacon said.

The White House panel acknowledged that it had not made estimates of what difficulties would be caused by Saddam Hussein using weapons of mass destruction, nor did it have sound estimates of how long the war would last or how long the U.S. would be in the region.

Abrams denied that the plans for Iraq were "nation building," which George W. Bush said in his 2000 presidential campaign that U.S. forces should not be engaged in.

Abrams said that the "responsibility for turning Iraq into a stable, peaceful democracy falls to the people of Iraq. The most we can do if this conflict occurs is get this monstrous regime that is preventing them from doing that out of the way."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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