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Humanitarian crisis looms in Iraq because of breakdown of law and order - UN

Humanitarian crisis looms in Iraq because of breakdown of law and order - UN

United Nations relief agencies warned today that looting and the breakdown of law and order in Iraq threatened to unleash a humanitarian crisis as their operations were obstructed, and they called on the occupying military forces to afford the necessary security for their aid work to function.

The collapse of civilian authority in the two largest cities, Baghdad and Basra, must be addressed by the occupying military forces, which have responsibility under international humanitarian law to maintain a secure environment for the civilian population, a spokesman for the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (UNHCOI) told the daily briefing in Amman, Jordan, on UN humanitarian activities.

The very difficult conditions in which Baghdad hospitals were now operating had been further exacerbated by the breakdown of law and order, which was preventing access to medical facilities by hospital staff and other essential service workers, David Wimhurst said.

Health workers, water treatment technicians and generator maintenance crews must be provided safe access to their places of work and the UN urged all parties to the conflict to guarantee access to medical facilities for all health and essential services, Mr. Wimhurst added. The longer the situation remained out of control, the more difficult it would be to start humanitarian relief operations, and the greater the delay in beginning the work of reconstruction.

Representatives of UN relief agencies echoed those concerns in their reports.

"Before this conflict took place, UNICEF (UN Children's Fund) had networks and systems inside Iraq that helped us achieve our life-saving vaccination campaigns, nutrition campaigns and work in education," UNICEF Representative to Iraq Carel de Rooy said. "What is horribly worrying about the looting, chaos and breakdown of order is that those systems we counted on may completely disappear or collapse."

The World Food Programme (WFP) said it had undertaken to provide food for up to 27 million people - the entire Iraqi population - for a period of four months, a major enterprise for which its staff had been preparing the complex logistics for months.

"However, we need to operate in a safe environment in order to deliver food successfully," spokesman Maarten Roest said. "Unless law and order prevail, it would be extremely difficult to guarantee the required food aid - 480,000 tons - reach the people."

Referring to the reported looting of warehouses in Basra – “the very warehouses which WFP is aiming to replenish for the May distribution” – WFP operations did not seem possible under such circumstances, he said.

The UN High Commissioner for the Refugees (UNHCR) said it was very concerned about the general lawlessness and feared that growing chaos in Iraq's cities and the precarious humanitarian situation could combine to spark a flood of refugees.

"We urge the occupying forces to take immediate measures to restore and maintain law and order and to ensure that humanitarian assistance flows to those who need it," spokesman Peter Kessler said.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) said pregnant women in particular were increasingly in danger, as local hospitals reportedly struggle to cope with large numbers of war casualties, medical supplies ran low, many operating theatres were no longer usable, and law and order seemed to be breaking down.

Available reports indicated that miscarriages, premature deliveries and caesarean sections have risen sharply since the start of the conflict, spokesman Ziad Rifai said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reiterated its alarm of recent days at reports from Baghdad of serious civilian casualties and growing pressure on hospitals and health workers. Electricity supplies were erratic, standby generators were being overworked to the point of collapse, and many hospitals were running short of clean, safe water, spokesperson Fadela Chaib said.

Staff were working extremely long hours in unimaginable circumstances and some vital surgical and medical supplies were running short, she added. Without clean water, wounds could not be cleaned and could readily become septic, and without electricity, vital equipment could not operate.

WHO was flying in 50 surgical kits, due to arrive in Amman today or tomorrow with sufficient anaesthetics, surgical equipment and medical disposables, such as bandages and syringes, for 5,000 surgical interventions and several days' post-operative care, she added.

The agency said reports from much of the rest of central and southern Iraq were even worse than from Baghdad, and it was extremely concerned about the situation in Nasiriya, Najaf, Karbala and many other towns where there had been conflict, where water and power shortages were also reported, and where the health needs had not been assessed.