The United Nations' top humanitarian official in Iraq said today that civilians could face "extremely grave" conditions if U.S. forces attack, warning that at least 10 million people could run out of food within six weeks of the start of hostilities if they did not receive emergency aid.
The official, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, said the Iraqi population's near-total dependence on government food rations means the United Nations and the United States would have to mount a massive and immediate humanitarian relief operation to prevent widespread starvation. Although plans call for the U.S. military to stockpile 3 million daily rations and the U.N. World Food Program to store food for 900,000 people for 10 weeks, he said those efforts would not be sufficient to satisfy the need.
Lopes da Silva's comments, in an interview, depicted Iraqis' probable food needs after an invasion more starkly than the Bush administration or U.N. officials in New York have characterized them. The remarks seemed designed to alert decision-makers to what he sees as a potential humanitarian crisis despite pledges by the U.S. military to ensure people have enough to eat.
The Bush administration has said it regards humanitarian relief as a U.S. responsibility in the early phases of an armed conflict, and U.S. officials have insisted they are moving aggressively to have enough supplies ready. But Lopes da Silva said he and other aid workers worry about uniformed soldiers distributing relief supplies to civilians, saying it "raises questions of blurring the lines" between combatants and humanitarian workers and "increases the danger to the humanitarians."
In any case, a U.N. official said preparations so far by the U.S. military and the World Food Program are "grossly inadequate."
"It's not nearly enough," the official said. "They need to be sending ships of wheat to the Persian Gulf along with ships of soldiers."
In the interview, Lopes da Silva said the Iraqi government's efforts to give people six months' worth of extra rations have not worked out as intended. The extra rations lack adequate quantities of beans and other proteins, as well as weaning cereal for young children, he noted, and many families have sold some or all of the additional handouts to pay for gifts for recent holidays and for other supplies to prepare for a war.
As a consequence, he said, the Iraqi government's much-touted six-month cushion actually is closer to six weeks. "After that, we will have to feed 10 million people," he said. "Eventually we'll have to feed the entire population."
Because 60 percent of Iraqi households depend on government rations -- and most of the rest are deemed by the United Nations to be largely dependent on them -- a war "will have dramatic implications on the food intake of the population," said Lopes da Silva, a former World Food Program official who now supervises the U.N. program that allows Iraq to sell oil in exchange for food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies.
He also warned that attacks on Iraq's infrastructure, particularly electricity generating stations, could force water treatment plants to shut down, leading to cholera, measles and other epidemics. While U.S. military officials have said they would attempt to minimize damage to civilian facilities, they have not ruled out hitting power plants.
Even if a war results in minimal destruction to the civilian infrastructure, the downfall of President Saddam Hussein's government likely would result in the collapse of the program that feeds the country's 23 million people, U.N. officials said. In that case, U.S. and U.N. officials would have to reconstitute the existing rationing system or develop a new method of handing out food.
Unlike in Afghanistan, international aid organizations have not played a significant role in the distribution of food here, meaning that those groups also would have to start from scratch if they wanted to help feed people.
"It will be an enormous -- if not impossible -- task," one U.N. official here said. "There is no precedent for an aid operation of this scale."
Iraq spends about $1.3 billion every six months under the program to import wheat, rice, sugar and other commodities, which are distributed to every home using a network of local distribution agents. The ration system is regarded by the United Nations as the world's largest and most efficient food-distribution program of its kind. But most of the warehouses that store food purchased under the program are now empty, Lopes da Silva said, so there are no stockpiles on which U.S. soldiers and international aid workers could draw.
The Bush administration has said it expects Iraqis to manage for several weeks on existing food supplies and emergency rations provided by the United States and international organizations. Planners in Washington anticipate that large segments of Iraq will be stable within days of a U.S.-led attack, permitting relief efforts even as fighting continues in Baghdad and elsewhere.
If that happens, U.S. officials have said, food distribution to the majority of Iraqis could be restarted quickly.
Staff writer Peter Slevin in Washington contributed to this report.