'Military can't give out relief,' say agencies

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The Independent Online

The first fresh water for 10 days was shipped into southern Iraq yesterday. But despite the efforts of the Royal Marines, using interpreters and loudspeakers to trumpet the arrival of food, water and medicine on the British naval supply ship RFA Sir Galahad, no one came to receive it.

It was the first sign that the distribution of supplies would be fraught with difficulties. The media planners had clearly hoped for pictures of clamouring hands and smiling Iraqi children receiving aid from the liberating coalition force. In the event, Colonel Steve Cox, the Royal Marine in charge of Umm Qasr port had to explain: "They are terrified of cameras – Saddam and his party have used them to control society."

The will to feed and water the Iraqi people is not lacking: on Friday the UN Security Council unanimously agreed to relaunch the oil-for-food programme, which used to feed 16 million people in Iraq before the war, and the UN made its largest-ever aid appeal, for $2.2bn.

Describing Sir Galahad as the "vanguard" of the aid programme, the British Government has made £30m available to the armed forces for immediate humanitarian relief. It has also given £13m to the UN, £32.5m to the Red Cross and £5m to the aid agencies that will work to rebuild Iraq. The US has pledged food worth more than $300m, as well as $206m on humanitarian relief, through USAID.

But there are fears that there was insufficient planning and that the conflict will worsen an already bleak humanitarian situation. Patrick Nicholson, a Kuwait-based spokesman for the Catholic agency Cafod, welcomed the arrival of supplies, but warned: "What the aid can achieve in the environment it is going into is pretty limited. The situation is not safe enough for the aid to be distributed in an orderly fashion."

Oxfam's Alex Renton, in Jordan, said: "A few boxes chucked out of the back of an army truck may look good, but it is not the same as organised distribution to the 16 million in Iraq who needed it before the war began." Christian Aid's John Davison said it went against the basic principles underlying the provision of aid to leave it in the hands of the military, urging governments to let in the aid agencies as soon as possible.

Their warnings will come as no surprise to the British government. In evidence to a House of Commons committee last month, published on Friday, the Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, said planning was "not as full or complete as I would like". She added: "The danger is that there is not full preparation for the risks. There is preparation for what is the hopeful scenario but that is not good enough – what happens if something goes wrong?"

Dealing with the humanitarian situation would be much worse if Britain and America waged war without the UN, she warned at the time. "The complexity of all this if there is not [international unity] will be dreadful, and the possibility of things being well prepared will be much more difficult."

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