LONDON, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Iraq's neighbours and foreign aid agencies fear that any U.S.-led invasion could set off an acute humanitarian crisis, but are keeping contingency plans low-key in the hope that U.N. inspections can avert war.
A confidential U.N. document drawn up last month says an Iraq conflict could cause half a million casualties, create 900,000 refugees and displace another two million Iraqis. Power, water, communications and oil installations could be devastated.
The Geneva-based U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which would be on the frontline of any Iraqi civilian exodus, is reticent about its plans. It wants to avoid any impression that the United Nations has concluded war is inevitable.
"Iraq is right now a rhetorical crisis and people are speculating about a speculative war; the United Nations has arms inspectors in place and we are hoping that process will be allowed to run its course," said UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler.
"We cannot do much without money and it is difficult to raise money without a concrete emergency," he said.
U.N. weapons inspectors returned to Iraq in November after a Security Council resolution gave President Saddam Hussein a final opportunity to disarm or face serious consequences -- in effect, military action by the United States and its allies.
The UNHCR, which spearheaded relief efforts for two million refugees in the 1991 Gulf War, has an emergency stockpile of materials -- plastic sheeting, jerry cans, blankets -- in Denmark which it can fly anywhere in the world at short notice.
But it has not sent any to the region ahead of a possible invasion of Iraq. "We...do not want to be seen as condoning war," Kessler said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), on the other hand, has been building stocks of medicine, sanitation equipment and blankets inside Iraq, where it has some 30 international staff, and in neighbouring states.
"We have reinforced our staff and placed materials at the ready in surrounding countries as we did for Afghanistan," said a spokesman for the Swiss-based humanitarian organisation.
Major international donors, such as the European Union, are also cagey about contingency plans for a conflict in Iraq.
"We have had some informal contacts with U.N. agencies to work out possible plans. But we are still in the speculative phase right now," a European Commission official said.
He said the commission's annual budget of $30 million in aid to Iraq could be diverted to post-war assistance and combined with special crisis funds from its humanitarian office.
"But we are a bit far away from drafting a programme on post-war action," the official said.
NEIGHBOURS TO CLOSE BORDERS
Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Kuwait are all expected to try to prevent Iraqi refugees from crossing their frontiers, though some say they will provide assistance on Iraqi soil.
"Iran is determined to prevent entry of Iraqi refugees to its territory and will shelter them at its borders," Deputy Interior Minister for Refugees Ahmad Hosseini said last year.
"We foresee 16 places for sheltering the refugees with a capacity of 700,000, but we have food only for 50,000."
Turkey, which held hundreds of thousands of fleeing Iraqi Kurds in its mountainous border region in 1991, is preparing to deal with any refugees before they cross into its territory.
"Turkey is stressing military security arrangements on the border in order to stop the confusion we saw after the (1991) Gulf War," said one senior civil official said last month.
Syria and Jordan are also braced, but expect fewer refugees because Iraq's main cities are far from their borders.
Carmela Godeau, head of the Damascus office of the International Organisation for Migration, said Syria had not sought its help and the agency had not gone beyond planning.
Relief agency officials in Amman said privately that the Jordanian authorities were determined to bar Iraqi refugees, but would allow third-country nationals to transit its territory.
In 1991 hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Egypt and other countries flooded through Jordan after fleeing Kuwait and Iraq. Some 300,000 long-time Palestinian residents of Kuwait used their Jordanian passports to make new homes in Jordan.
Kuwait's government has said it will not let refugees enter the country from Iraq but that displaced people could be cared for in the demilitarised border zone between the two countries. (Additional reporting from Amman, Ankara, Damascus, Geneva, Kuwait and Tehran bureaux)
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