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Local UN staff still working in Iraq to bring relief to civilian population

Local UN staff still working in Iraq to bring relief to civilian population

United Nations relief agencies reported today that their 3,400 local staff in Iraq were doing all they could to bring relief to the civilian population and perform their functions despite the withdrawal of international personnel on the eve of hostilities.

Geoffrey Keele, spokesman for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), told the daily briefing on UN humanitarian operations in Amman, Jordan, that the officer-in-charge in Baghdad, Hatim George, reported that national staff felt they were "affirming their existence by continuing to work and doing what they can."

UNICEF national staff also continued to provide services to relieve immediate humanitarian needs as well as put in place emergency services to save lives and look after the welfare of children, Mr. Keele added.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it had a team in Baghdad ready to head to Basra as soon as it received travel permits to assist with the potential health emergency in Iraq's second largest city, where the health of the population was under serious threat from the lack of access to safe, clean drinking water.

The Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (UNHCI) said that while half of Basra's 1.5 million inhabitants now had access to drinking water, three urban centres south of the city remained disconnected since last Friday. About 400,000 people were affected and remained at risk with repair work impossible under present conditions, spokesman David Wimhurst said.

WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib said the agency's teams elsewhere in Iraq were working intensively to keep the health system functioning, and together with the national authorities were distributing medicines and other medical supplies in northern Iraq.

Continuing heavy bombardment of Baghdad was having a serious impact on the population's well-being, particularly children and other vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, the elderly and disabled, she added. The bombardment also made it extremely difficult for medical staff to get to those who may need medical assistance, including women in labour.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) reported that its office, which has worked consistently on projects throughout Iraq since 1976, was open for a limited time each day. The agency has nearly 500 staff in the country and, among other functions, provides emergency power supply to basic humanitarian services, such as hospitals, water pumping and water purification stations, sewerage infrastructure, and camps of internal refugees.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said there have been no reported arrivals of refugees outside Iraq. "We hope this means that all our preparedness activities in the region have been futile, but these are still early days," spokesman Peter Kessler said.

"Media keep asking when we expect any Iraqi refugees to flee in substantial numbers," he added. "Well, to repeat a quip I heard here yesterday, UNHCR is a 'non-prophet' organization."