Civilians cheer as tiny trickle of humanitarian relief begins to flow

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Seven truckloads of humanitarian aid – a tiny fragment of what is required – arrived in Iraq yesterday, the first relief convoy of any size since the US-led war started a week ago.

Seven truckloads of humanitarian aid – a tiny fragment of what is required – arrived in Iraq yesterday, the first relief convoy of any size since the US-led war started a week ago.

Amid cheers from local civilians and a fierce sandstorm which hampered the efforts of aid workers, the trucks rolled into the border town of Umm Qasr carrying food, water and supplies provided by Kuwaitis.

"We planned for 30 trucks but we only got seven loaded because of the severe sandstorm," said E J Russell of the Humanitarian Operations Centre, a US-British-Kuwaiti agency established to help co-ordinate aid efforts.

Having finally secured the town after days of unexpected resistance from Iraqi soldiers, British marines were cheered by crowds as they helped distribute tuna, crackers, sweets and hundreds of cases of water.

In the nearby town of Safwan, a smaller aid convoy provided by Kuwait's Red Crescent Society was surrounded by hundreds of Iraqis jostling for supplies. Many were young men who began fighting for provisions when the truck doors opened. Aid workers threw out boxes that disappeared into a forest of hands.

But while the scenes of grateful Iraqi citizens accepting provisions may have provided the sort of images that will delight London and Washington, aid workers say the flow of supplies into Iraq has been slow and insufficient. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other aid agencies claim a failure of the military properly to communicate with the aid community, combined with a lack of funds, has hampered their efforts. They also say Kuwait's government has not been interested in helping Iraqis.

Many more supplies are needed. The provision of water – particularly in cities such as Basra, where the UN has warned of a humanitarian disaster – is especially critical. Electricity and water have been cut off in Basra, and many of its residents are drinking contaminated water and face the threat of diarrhoea and cholera. The UN Children's Fund has estimated that up to 100,000 of Basra's children under five are at immediate risk.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said yesterday that Iraq will probably need the biggest humanitarian operation in history to feed its population in the aftermath of the US-led invasion. Before hostilities, about 60 per cent of the Iraqi population depended on rations from the UN-sponsored food-for-oil programme, now disrupted.

"What we're looking at is having to feed, eventually, 27 million people," said Trevor Rowe, WFP's chief spokesman. "This is the whole population of Iraq. So what we are envisioning is an enormous programme, probably the biggest humanitarian operation in history. We estimate that this is going to cost over $1bn. We're looking at about a six-month programme."

Ari Fleischer, President Bush's spokesman, blamed the Iraqi regime's decision to lay mines in Umm Qasr for the slow arrival of $105m (£67m) of US aid. But British and American forces say they have cleared the deep-water port of mines and there is sufficient space for the Sir Galahad, a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship laden with 232 tons of supplies, to dock. The ship was due to arrive last night or this morning.

Sir Galahad's wartime history

Despite its status as a glorified ferry, the name Sir Galahad is firmly linked with the perils of war and its human cost.

The 8,700-ton ship due to dock in the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr with humanitarian supplies is the successor to a vessel of the same name which was sunk, right, in one of the most horrific moments of the Falklands War.

About 50 men were killed when Argentinian fighter jets attacked the Sir Galahad and a second transport ship, the Sir Tristram, on 8 June 1982. Both were carrying men and ammunition.

The undefended Sir Galahad was set ablaze and many survivors were left with bad burns. It eventually sank.

The current vessel, part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and more than twice the weight of its ill-fated predecessor, was commissioned from the Swan Hunter shipyard in Tyneside and entered service in 1988.

Cahal Milmo

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