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Voicing concerns, UN relief agencies plea for urgent access to Iraqi civilians

Voicing concerns, UN relief agencies plea for urgent access to Iraqi civilians

Expressing increasing concern over the health and safety of the civilian population in Iraq, particularly in the southern city of Basra, United Nations aid agencies today appealed to all sides for access to bring in humanitarian relief.

Stressing that international humanitarian agencies were "poised, ready to help," the World Health Organization (WHO) said it had a local team in Baghdad waiting to go to Basra, where electricity and water shortages have placed the 1.7 million residents at risk.

Access was now "vital" since half the population was without clean water and there was a high potential for epidemics, especially cholera and typhoid, WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib told a briefing in Amman, Jordan, of the UN's humanitarian activities.

But the team had not been able to get through because of the security situation. "The need for access to Basra, and to other areas where the civilian population has been affected by the conflict, is increasingly urgent," Ms. Chaib said. "WHO appeals to all sides in this conflict to allow humanitarian agencies to gain access to these people."

Noting that in previous conflicts, where humanitarian access was restricted, it had proved possible to agree on humanitarian corridors or pauses to allow access, Ms. Chaib said: "All of these ideas must be pursued with energy to ensure that the impact of this conflict on the civilian population of Iraq can be minimized."

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (UNHCI) said two health institutions had been bombed in southern Iraq. A health centre in Najaf was completely destroyed, and an ambulance was also destroyed and the driver killed, spokesman David Wimhurst said. In Nasseriah the main hospital was partially damaged.

Noting that such attacks were a violation of the Geneva Conventions, he said: "Once again, parties to the conflict have failed to respect the Convention, and vital institutions that civilians need for their well-being have been destroyed or damaged."

Following reports of damage to several cultural buildings in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit, the Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recalled that Iraq was "the cradle of civilizations that go back thousands of years, [and] has many treasures and sites that are a valuable part of the heritage of all humankind."

Everything possible should be done to preserve the Iraqi cultural heritage, Koïchiro Matsuura said in a message read out at the briefing.