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UN agencies stress dangers to relief efforts from lawlessness in Iraq

UN agencies stress dangers to relief efforts from lawlessness in Iraq

Stressing repeatedly the very grave threat posed to humanitarian activities in Iraq by current lawlessness and looting, United Nations relief agencies appealed to coalition forces today to act swiftly to avoid the breakdown of all aid efforts for the civilian population.

Hospitals had closed down for fear of looters, child nutritional posts were being ransacked, large groups were fleeing Baghdad and other cities in search of safety and security, and water delivery to one hard-pressed city had been postponed until further notice because of insecurity, the agencies told the daily briefing in Amman, Jordan, on UN humanitarian activities.

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (UNHCOI) said looting and lawlessness continued in Baghdad, Basrah, Kirkuk and Mosul, and the UN was still awaiting a reply from the US military command on what its official policy position was on "this extremely critical situation." The reply was expected yesterday, but had not yet been delivered, spokesman David Wimhurst said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had been unable to visit hospitals in Baghdad yesterday or today, he added. Many hospitals and health facilities there had closed their doors fearing attacks by looters, and the Al Kindi hospital, which was ransacked yesterday, had now been abandoned by its staff and the fate of its patients, who were unable to seek shelter elsewhere, is unknown.

In the south, hospitals and health facilities were struggling to maintain services in spite of staffing shortages, lack of medical supplies and inconsistent water and power, Mr. Wimhurst said. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) was delivering water, but insecurity was affecting operations, he added. Water tank deliveries to Nasiriya had been postponed until further notice, and in the port of Um Qasr, a tanker taking water to a health centre had to withdraw due to an aggressive crowd.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Sergio Vieira de Mello, was seriously concerned by the worsening situation in Baghdad and urged the coalition to ensure immediately the well being of civilians under its control in accordance with its obligations under international humanitarian law, spokesperson Bela Kapur said.

OHCHR was ready to send human rights officers to Baghdad, as soon as security conditions permitted, to help the prevention of new human rights violations and to document violations that had already taken place, she added.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the situation being reported from Baghdad, Basra, Zubair, Kirkuk, Mosul and other towns was "extremely alarming," and it urged the military forces and remaining civilian authorities to quickly restore law and order and ensure the safety of hospitals and hospital staff.

UNICEF added its voice to the "great alarm." When chaos and lawlessness rule, the most vulnerable segment of the population - the country's children - were certain to suffer, spokesman Geoffrey Keele declared.

Noting that nutritional rehabilitation centres in paediatric hospitals had managed to reduce malnutrition by more than 50 per cent, he said that now when children needed these services the most, they were being dismantled, chair my chair, table by table, medicine by medicine.

All steps must be taken by the coalition forces to ensure that vital social infrastructure was preserved, he added. Otherwise all aid attempts would be hindered and "quite frankly, people may die." He also reported 40 more cases of severe children's diarrhoea in Um Qasr.

The World Food Programme (WFP), which has sent in food convoys to northern Iraq from Turkey, also called on the occupying forces "to do their best to maintain law and order to enable our work to expand quickly to the rest of the country," spokesman Khaled Mansour said.

The UN High Commissioner for the Refugees (UNHCR) echoed the call. While there had so far been no major refugee flow out of Iraq, spokesman Peter Kessler said large groups of Iraqis and foreign nationals were reportedly still moving from Baghdad and other cities, trying to find security and safety. Up to 30,000 displaced Iraqis had reportedly reached the Iraqi border town of Badrah, near western Iran, seeking assistance after fleeing fighting in Baghdad and Nasiriya, he added.

People were fleeing because they were desperate and frightened by the chaos in the streets around them, and it was "absolutely imperative" that coalition forces provide a policing function to ensure security on the street and the cities, he said.