Preparing for the Worst

Feb 25, 2003 08:18 PM EST

LOUISVILLE - A U.S. war on Iraq would put 30 percent of Iraqi children under five years old - 1.26 million children - at risk of death from malnutrition, according to a confidential United Nations planning document.

The report says an attack would also cause huge numbers of civilian injuries, overwhelm an already overtaxed and under-equipped healthcare system, worsen a current nutritional crisis, create hundreds of thousands of refugees and bring outbreaks of disease in "epidemic if not pandemic proportions."

The draft document, Likely Humanitarian Scenarios, dated Dec. 10, 2002, was prepared by U.N. contingency planners and leaked to The Times of London in December. A number of related U.N. documents on the humanitarian situation were leaked earlier this year to a non-governmental organization by U.N. field staff in Iraq.

These documents estimate that:

* As many as 500,000 people in Iraq could require medical treatment as a result of "direct or indirect" war-related injuries, according to estimates by the World Health Organization. The report says existing shortages of essential medical items in the country would be exacerbated by the "likely absence of a functioning primary health care system in a post-conflict situation."'

* Destruction of water and sanitation facilities would create an emergency need to provide potable water to 39 percent of the Iraqi population - more than 10 million people.

* More than 3 million people in Iraq would be at risk of starvation and would require humanitarian food relief -B including more than 2 million children under five years old who already are severely or moderately malnourished, and one million pregnant women.

* About 900,000 Iraqis would become refugees requiring assistance, including 100,000 who would need immediate help.

* About 2 million Iraqis would be without shelter.

The report says the possible conflict in Iraq cannot be compared with the 1991 Gulf war or the 2001 U.S. action in Afghanistan because of the sanctions in effect in Iraq for the past 12 years. It says 16 million Iraqis now depend on monthly "food for oil" government rations to feed themselves and their families.

The United Nations has drawn up contingency plans to feed 10 million civilians, including more than a million refugees, in the event of a war, according to Kenzo Oshima, the U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs. According to Oshima, the U.N. is working through various humanitarian organizations to pre-position in countries near Iraq 10 weeks' worth of food for 450,000 people, as well as water, shelter and emergency health kits for 240,000 and winter kits for 118,000. He said all these supplies would address only initial needs.

Oshima said a war would further disrupt the country's infrastructure, creating fuel shortages and shutting down water-treatment plants throughout the country. He said 10 million people might need food aid during and after a war, and as much as 50 percent of Iraq's population could be without safe water in the wake of a U.S. attack.

He said U.N. officials also assume that two million people would be internally displaced, and 600,000 to 1.45 million would become refugees and asylum seekers. Many would seek refuge in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Syria, Iran, Turkey and Lebanon. (Jordan's government has said that it would close its border to refugees.)

Oshima said the U.N. has plans for three different scenarios, which characterize potential war damage as light, medium and heavy. He said the figures he presented assumed the medium scenario.

He pointed out several times during a press conference that the contingency planning does not mean that U.N. officials have concluded that war is inevitable. He said Secretary General Kofi Annan "continues to believe that inspections can work, that all avenues should be explored to find a peaceful solution."

In December, the U.N. asked for $37.4 million for "preparedness measures" in anticipation of a U.S.-Iraq war. Oshima said $30 million has been pledged so far, including $15 million from the United States. But he said that money "is only for preparedness measures and does not represent actual requirements that might arise should a conflict occur." In that case, he said, U.N. officials would have to ask immediately for another $90 million.

Oshima noted that the civilian population in Iraq "is already highly vulnerable," with a million young children malnourished, five million people already without access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and household food reserves sufficient for only six weeks.

So many Iraqis depend on food rations distributed by the government, he said, that any disruption of those distributions would require humanitarian agencies to compensate by distributing 460,000 tons of food per month. He said the task would be "gigantic," requiring the agencies to provide four times as much food as the U.N. delivered to Afghanistan after the U.S. attack there.

Oshima said the calculations he was reporting did not take into account the toll of deaths and injuries a war would produce or the possibility that weapons of mass destruction would be used.

He added that, while the U.N. considers itself the primary provider of humanitarian aid, in the event of a U.S. occupation, "the occupying powers would have certain obligations under international humanitarian law," including the Geneva Conventions.

The Center for Economic and Social Rights, a non-governmental organization that has studied the humanitarian situation in Iraq since 1991, said recently that the U.N. is not prepared for the "humanitarian disaster" that a U.S. invasion would bring.

Roger Normand, the group's executive director, said the agency's failure to "address the humanitarian consequences ... in advance" is "not just irresponsible, but a violation of ethical and legal principles." He added, "It is impossible to conduct this war without doing extraordinary damage to innocent men, women and children in Iraq."

Normand said the U.N.'s $30 million in pledges for humanitarian aid would provide "only one day's worth of supplies."

He said his conclusions were based on the findings of a research team that visited Iraq in January and on confidential internal U.N. memos.

While humanitarian agencies must strengthen "the existing system of food distribution," Normand said, it should not do so "by replacing it with dropped (food) packets from the same planes that will be bombing the country," as was the case in Afghanistan.

Normand concluded, "It is safe to predict that the humanitarian crisis resulting from war in Iraq would far exceed the capacity of U.N. and international relief agencies."

Sarah Zaidi, CESR's research director, said the precedent of Afghanistan is troubling. In the wake of that action, she said, the United States was supposed to "provide food (and) medicine and rehabilitate the whole system and provide quite a bit of aid," but hasn't "delivered on that promise at all."

The U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, also has warned in an interview that another war in Iraq could cause "a catastrophe without precedent" in the Middle East.

Despite the government's oil-for-food program, da Silva said, half of Iraq's pregnant women are anemic and 30 percent of newborns are undernourished. He said a dozen years of economic sanctions has not "pressured the regime the way the Security Council believed it would," and the punitive measures "have fallen mostly on the population."

A bill introduced by Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) would require President Bush to report on "the full implications" of a war - including those for security of the Middle East and the United States, the expense and the cost in terms of human lives - before an attack is launched.

Noting that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is "a vicious dictator" whose behavior must be monitored and controlled, the measure notes that the law authorizing the President to use force against Iraq requires that he make frequent reports to Congress on the steps he has taken and on his plans for the future.

It therefore demands "a full accounting of the implications, both positive and negative, of initiating military action against Iraq in regard to homeland security, the war on terrorism, regional stability in the Middle East and the Middle East peace process and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," as well as estimates of casualties, expenses, and plans for a post-war occupation of Iraq including humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people and neighboring nations forced to accommodate refugees.

Similarly, a coalition of non-governmental organizations has urged the president of the U.N. Security Council to ask the secretary general for a briefing on the "humanitarian vulnerability" of Iraqi civilians, especially children. The organizations include CARE International, the Mennonite Central Committee, World Vision International and Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) is supporting an emergency-preparation appeal from Action by Churches Together (ACT), a World Council of Churches-affiliated alliance of which the Presbyterian Church (USA) is a member. PDA also is supporting the shipment of pediatric medicines to Iraq through Church World Service in connection with the "All My Children" appeal.

By John Filiatreau