The United Nations estimates that a U.S.-led military campaign to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could place about 10 million Iraqi civilians, including more than 2 million refugees and homeless, at risk of hunger and disease and in need of immediate assistance, according to a U.N. planning document.
U.N. officials warned that the impact of a U.S. air and ground invasion in Iraq would likely be worse than the humanitarian crisis caused by the Persian Gulf War in 1991 because a decade of U.N. sanctions has made the Iraqi population almost totally dependent on government handouts for survival.
Such a conflict, the U.N. planners predicted in the document, would halt the country's oil production, severely degrade its electrical power network and disrupt the Iraqi government's capacity to continue distributing food rations through a U.N.-supervised humanitarian program. It would also likely lead to the outbreak of diseases, including cholera and dysentery, in "epidemic if not pandemic proportions," the confidential report said.
The 13-page contingency plan, prepared by a senior U.N. task force last month to coordinate U.N. humanitarian agencies' response to a possible conflict, represents the most alarming official U.N. assessment of the humanitarian fallout of a U.S.-led war in Iraq. It also underscores U.N. fears that it may be impossible to adequately deliver relief to Iraqi civilians in the initial weeks after the outbreak of war as U.S. forces destroy or blockade key roads, rails, bridges and ports.
"The bulk of the population is now totally dependent on the government of Iraq for a majority, if not all, of their basic needs," the document said. "Unlike the situation in 1991, they have no way of coping if they cannot access them: the sanctions regime, if anything, has served to increase dependence on the government as almost the sole provider."
The document was obtained by the U.N. office of the Mennonite religious group, which opposes a war against Iraq, and posted on the Web site of the Cambridge University student advocacy group, Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
The United Nations' preparations have been cloaked in secrecy because senior U.N. officials feared it might appear that the world body was backing the Bush administration's efforts to topple Hussein. U.N. officials have only recently begun to acknowledge their plans, noting their concern that they may be called upon to conduct a major humanitarian operation and subsequently help administer a future Iraqi government. "We have had a lot of experiences in the past where we were accused of not being ready," a U.N. official said. "If something does happen, nobody can say they weren't given a lot of notice. "
The U.N. Children's Fund, the World Food Program and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees are stockpiling food, blankets, tents and other equipment in warehouses in Iran and other countries along Iraq's border for more than half a million people. The United Nations also issued an appeal last month in Geneva to the United States and other international donors for $37 million to finance their initial preparedness plans. However, implementation of the plan could cost billions, according to U.N. officials.
The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations is planning to create an Afghanistan-style U.N. political office that could help distribute humanitarian relief aid and administer a new Iraqi government.
U.N. officials said they hope the resumption of U.N. inspections in Iraq can avert a war and that their own efforts do not reflect support for U.S. aims to oust the Iraqi leadership. The U.N. document cites the need for developing a "plan B" that would outline the U.N.'s future role in Iraq in the event that "conflict is avoided and sanctions are, at the least, suspended."
"The United Nations often engages in contingency planning in countries in which we work. In the case of Iraq we are of course preparing for all eventualities," said David Wimhurst, the U.N. spokesman for peacekeeping. "However, it is standard practice that we do not discuss such planning nor disclose details about it."
Under the terms of a 1996 agreement, Iraq is permitted to export its oil and use the majority of proceeds to pay for food, medicine and other humanitarian goods. The program is expected to be suspended in the event of a military conflict.
The United Nations expects the most serious fighting to occur in central Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, causing shortages of clean water and sanitation and driving civilians into southern Iraq and across the border into Iran. But it also warns that the food distribution network that feeds more than 24 million Iraqis could be disrupted, requiring the establishment of alternative supply routes.
U.N. organizations are expecting to concentrate their aid efforts in the south, where it anticipates about 5.4 million people will be in need of immediate relief. But they will have to find new supply routes to feed more than 3.7 million people in three Kurdish-administered provinces in northern Iraq.
They will also have to contend with more than 900,000 refugees expected to flee to Iran and an additional 50,000 that will go to Saudi Arabia. About 130,000 refugees living in U.N.-supervised refugee camps in Iraq are also expected to join the flood of internally displaced Iraqis requiring aid.