But in contrast to the 1991 Gulf War, as many as half a million IDPs may head for the north of the country. IRIN spoke to UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Coordinator for Northern Iraq Andre Laperriere about levels of preparedness, likely movement of IDPs and the most pressing humanitarian needs in the north in the event of war.
QUESTION: How might the movement of refugees and IDPs in Northern Iraq differ from what happened in 1991 if war breaks out?
ANSWER: The situation now is very different from 1991. The main difference is that over the last 12 years there has been an extremely important effort in terms of reconstruction. In the previous conflict, up to 90 percent of the cities and villages in the north had been destroyed. Almost all have since been rebuilt, so now people who may be forced to flee their homes in the event of a crisis have other places to go.
This is because they have relatives in the next town, next village. There are houses and an infrastructure to receive them. So if there has to be a displacement of people in the north, it would, as far as we know, remain in the north. So people fleeing to other countries would be much more limited than before.
There's also a second difference. In 1991, the conflict took place very largely in the north itself. This was true also for the Iran-Iraq war before this, so the north was really a battle zone to a large extent. Currently, according to the scenarios we hear most often, we foresee the coming crisis is likely to affect much more the centre and south of Iraq, Baghdad in particular and the neighbouring area, meaning that the north is likely to be more calm and could be seen as a safe refuge for a large part of the population, especially the essentially Kurdish population that is near the north.
What we foresee is the influx of people coming from the centre and south to the north, instead of the reverse way as it was during the Gulf War. This is why the UN has worked very hard, UNICEF among them, in helping the north to be better prepared, so if there is a major influx of people the infrastructure can be in a position to receive them, whether from the water point of view, the health point of view, shelter and other essentials.
Q: Are you satisfied that UNICEF and other UN agencies are now prepared to cope with what you have suggested could be a very large number of IDPs moving to northern Iraq?
A: The figure that most of us are working on at his time is 250,000 people, which we expect to receive in the north. People would be coming, we think, to the two main towns that are just south of the no-fly zone in the north. These are the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. If you look at these two cities and the surrounding villages, you have a population of between two and three million people. We estimate about 10 percent of these individuals could flee to the north, so that's what we are preparing to receive in the north.
Q: How is the food security and general resource situation in the north of Iraq and what impact could this have on the movement of IDPs?
A: On the food side, on the plus side, the World Food Programme [WFP] has accelerated its distribution of the food basket. As you know, about 75 percent of the population in Iraq [about 16 million people] is highly if not totally dependent on these food rations that are being given every month to the population, to the families. We foresee that in the event of a major crisis, the regular influx of these essentially imported food baskets could be interrupted, so as a response WFP has distributed food baskets in advance up to the month of May. So as long as the populations don't move they should be in a relatively good food situation in their own houses.
In addition, for the second year in a row, the rains have been quite good in Iraq, and in the north in particular. It's mostly an agricultural society, so the crops are coming to market now and they are good and there's plenty of them. So you could say that if there are not too many displacements, the food side should be OK.
However, please remember IDPs or refugees sometimes have to flee in an unprepared way, so this is where they become very vulnerable, because where they go food and markets etcetera may not be available. Secondly, if the crisis was to go on for a long time, then eventually the accumulated food I was referring to earlier would run out as well.
Thirdly, it's worth remembering the economy in the north and in large parts of Iraq has been very much disturbed, if not destroyed. This means the commercial, industrial and business people had to start from scratch after the events of 1991. Things are better now, but there's nothing in reserve. So, should there be a major crisis, we think the economy will come to a halt with no reserves, and this will result in a sharp decrease in family income. That could in turn lead to people moving, looking for a better situation elsewhere.
Q: Does UNICEF anticipate shortages and widespread destruction of infrastructure like bridges, roads and water sources in the north if there is a war?
A: I'm not a military person, but we know there are a number of strategic areas in Iraq and mostly around the oilfields which happen to coincide with the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, which are just on the border of northern Iraq. We foresee that the chances are very great that some conflict and destruction could take place in these areas, hence leading to displacement of people from these areas.
As for the north, we don't anticipate too much destruction there, because the number of strategic sites, as the military would describe them, are very limited.
But if a conflict does start, we are likely to see serious shortage of fuel, which could lead to heating problems, now [that] it's still very cold in the north. It could lead to shortages of power coming from diesel generators. This could trigger shortages of water and then to health problems. These are some of the elements that the UN, UNICEF in particular, has been preparing for in conjunction with local authorities in these key sectors. These sectors remain very fragile and vulnerable.
Q: Are you satisfied with UNICEF's level of preparedness in Northern Iraq?
A: UNICEF is the lead agency for things like water, sanitation and nutrition, as well as having programmes in health, education and protection in the north. We have worked hard with others to identify key sites - I'm thinking of things like health centres, where people would come in the event of a crisis, key pumping stations that would have to be kept operational despite fuel shortages etcetera. We have been working with local authorities to install back-up systems and training personnel.
We have also worked with local officials in identifying sites and infrastructure that could be used to host IDPs should there be major displacements of population. Eighteen sites have been identified, 15 of these 18 would be located near the three main cities of Dahuk, Arbil and As-Sulaymaniyah, and three would be further north. The sites would be managed at governorate level, with flexibility so that if these sites could not receive people, other sites could be rapidly substituted.
But this doesn't mean everything is perfect. Much more money is needed, there's a shortage of shelter material and other essential commodities. But at least the basics are there, and we are trying to use the time left before a possible emergency to build on this. Despite this level of preparedness, UNICEF hopes for a peaceful, political solution that will avoid a conflict altogether.