The United Nations is engaging in an urgent behind-the-scenes effort to prepare for the possibility of a humanitarian crisis in Iraq if the country comes under military attack.
Anxiety is growing at UN headquarters that an American-led assault on Iraq could create as many as 900,000 refugees, wreak havoc with the country's transport and power systems and worsen malnutrition and health problems for its already struggling population.
The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has privately encouraged his agencies to make ready for such a crisis but has asked that preparations be conducted discreetly to avoid giving any impression he has given up on the inspections process. Meetings to consider plans are being chaired by his deputy, Louise Frechette.
A spokesman for Mr Annan confirmed: "Obviously, contingency planning has to be ongoing. This organisation has to be ready for these developments even though we still hope they won't happen and that Iraq will comply with resolution 1441."
A spokesman for Unicef in New York confirmed last night that the agency had begun stockpiling food and medical supplies in countries that neighbour Iraq and had been laying other contingency plans for the possibility of widespread disruption since about August.
"It would be hard to say that we are ready, to be honest, but we are certainly preparing to be ready," the spokesman said. "It's not clear if there will be a conflict, how long it might be or how widespread it might be. But clearly, we can't really be ready for the very worst."
Under the gravest scenario, Iraq could become crippled by the impact of war. Obvious targets for military planners include road and rail bridges and the power grid. Oil production, which provides the funds for the UN's oil-for-food humanitarian programme in Iraq, might cease. Water supplies could also be impaired. The worst of the destruction is likely to be centred on Baghdad.
Threat of war aside, Sara Piepmeier, of the UN's World Food Programme, said aid agencies were already struggling to cope with the country's humanitarian needs. She said: "Even without the prospect of helping millions more in Iraq, we are heading into a year like none we've ever seen, a tide of need almost incomprehensible in scope."
Earlier this month, the UN appealed to 10 donor countries, including Britain, to provide up to $37m (£23m) for preparations for a humanitarian calamity. Washington said it was making its own plans for food rations to Iraqi people if a war is started. The UN agencies also face the likelihood that their own staff in Iraq will have to be evacuated.
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