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UN moves to assume key role coordinating relief effort in Iraq

UN moves to assume key role coordinating relief effort in Iraq

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The United Nations is preparing to assume a central role coordinating international efforts aimed at providing aid to war-ravaged Iraq, a spokesman for the world body said today.

"We will do whatever we can to assist the Iraqi people in an independent and impartial manner," Nejib Friji told reporters in Amman, Jordan. "We are trying to move back into Iraq as fast as we can, and several international staff have already been deployed."

"But," he added, "we can only work effectively once the occupying power can assure us that conditions are right for the return of our staff."

The spokesman also noted that beyond the humanitarian role, the UN could act only with a mandate from the Security Council, and called on that body's 15 members to "heal their divisions and find common ground." In particular, he stressed the need to reaffirm the sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity of Iraq, as well as the right of the country's people to freely determine their own system of government and political leadership, as well as to control their own natural resources.

In addition, Mr. Friji emphasized the need to help the people of Iraq establish conditions for a normal life, and to put an end to the country's isolation. Any role for the UN must be matched by the necessary resources, he said, adding that of primary importance is "the need to give pride of place, in all our thinking, to the rights and interests of the Iraqi people."

"The Secretary-General believes that serious efforts are underway in the Security Council to heal the rifts over Iraq, which will help restore normalcy in the country and allow the international community to assist the Iraqi people in rebuilding their State," Mr. Friji said. "Renewed cooperation in the Council will not only improve the situation in Iraq but help tackle other major challenges such as Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, the fight against terrorism and the struggle against poverty."

Meanwhile, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) today reported that diarrhoeal illness has broken out at a hospital in one of Baghdad's poorest suburbs, with 300 cases – many of them children – admitted in the space of three hours. Simon Ingram, a spokesman for the agency, said this incident serves to highlight the need for safe water throughout Iraq, but pointed out that instead, "we are faced with the very real possibility that in the south of the country at least, water treatment plants will very soon run out of supplies of the chemicals needed to make raw water supplies safe to drink."

Unless urgent steps are taken to rectify this, a dramatic escalation in the incidence of diarrhoeal disease may be unavoidable," he warned.

In a separate development, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for the Refugees (UNHCR) said even as that agency helps Iraqis who have fled their country, it is preparing for their voluntary repatriation when conditions permit.

"UNHCR is shifting its primary focus from contingency preparations for a possible refugee influx into neighbouring States to laying the groundwork for the eventual return of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees," said Peter Kessler. As part of that process, UNHCR has developed a preliminary repatriation and reintegration plan for up to half a million Iraqi refugees.

"When the political climate is right and we see an environment that's conducive to voluntary return – and I should emphasize that we're a long way from that right now – UNHCR wants to be ready," said Mr. Kessler. In the interim, the agency "is still asking governments to temporarily halt any forced returns of rejected Iraqi asylum seekers and provide appropriate complementary forms of protection to Iraqis," he added.