Even as United Nations relief agencies reported chaotic scenes from Baghdad, with a hospital and UN compounds being looted, plans were underway today to send some international humanitarian aid staff back into the country within the next few days, security permitting.
Amid rising alarm at reports of access to overwhelmed hospitals being further impeded by the breakdown of law and order, and of a dramatic increase in cases of children’s diarrhoea in the south, the World Food Programme (WFP) said if security permitted, it was planning to send international staff back into both northern and southern Iraq within the next few days.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also said it was working hard to return international staff to Baghdad and the rest of Iraq once it was safe to do so.
WFP staff, withdrawn with all other UN international personnel on the eve of the war, would assist in assessing the needs of internal refugees, checking on property, milling and silo capacity, as well as in general preparations for receiving and distributing large-scale food shipments, spokesman Khaled Mansour told the daily briefing in Amman, Jordan, on UN humanitarian activities.
He said that under plans to re-activate the monthly food rationing system as early as May, WFP needed to bring in about half a million tons of food every month for the next three months.
Much of the briefing, however, focused on the grim picture of the events now unfolding and on previous appeals to the occupying forces to ensure law and order and stop the looting. WHO said it had received disturbing reports from Baghdad that the ability of hospitals to do their work was being severely curtailed by the lack of civil order, and it was "extremely concerned" that this would have a very serious impact on health and healthcare in the capital.
The Medical City hospital centre was reported to be running very short of water, which made effective medical care almost impossible, spokesperson Fadela Chaib said. Another hospital, Al Kindi, where many injured civilians had been taken since the conflict began, was reported to have been looted.
Hospital staff were said to be reluctant to travel to work for fear of being held up by demonstrations, looting or celebrations, she added. Surgical and medical supplies from central warehouses were not getting through when stocks ran out and there had been no new deliveries from outside the country since before the conflict began three weeks ago. The already-fragile water and electricity infrastructure was coming under extreme pressure and standby generators were being overworked.
Ms. Chaib said WHO was ready to deliver urgently needed surgical and medical supplies but this could only be done once security improved and once secure delivery could be ensured. "We are just ready to go in, with very skilled people, and stocks piled here and a lot of medical supplies to go as soon as possible," she declared.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said that while reports of continued chaos in Baghdad were seriously worrying and UNICEF's own offices had been looted yesterday - phones, chairs, essentially everything was taken away - the most alarming information was the dramatic increase in diarrhoeal disease in children during the past five days.
Doctors at the hospital in the southern port of Um Qasr reported a staggering increase directly related to the lack of clean water, with 50 cases for the first five days of April compared with 30 for the whole month last year, spokesperson Wivina Belmonte said. Based on what the doctors had seen, they concluded that malnutrition rates are likely to increase sharply by the end of the month all over southern Iraq due to the water situation.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that even a border post, at Trebil on Iraq's western frontier, was looted by armed men after the guards disappeared overnight. But there was still only a trickle of refugees reported to be leaving the country, with more than 100 reaching Syria in the past 24 hours.