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Iraq: Refugee aid workers race against military timetable

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By Carsten Hoffmann, dpa

Amman (dpa) - Refugee aid workers in countries bordering Iraq are in a race against time and against the military strategists' timetable.

Sten Bronee, who represents the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan, bends over the map and points at two points on the desert landscape.

At Ruwayshid, 70 kilometres from the Iraq border and next to the road from Baghdad, two refugee camps are to be set up.

Although time is running short for military preparations for war, emergency accommodation for refugees is still only at the planning stage.

Bronee warned delays are irresponsible as tens of thousands of people or more may have to be cared for in the dry desert region.

''It is the expectation of a huge flood that everyone has to deal with. Can we respond, can we meet their needs? Do we have enough equipment?''

Bronee answers his own questions. ''On paper we are basically well prepared, and, to a certain degree, on the ground as well. But we are not yet ready,'' he warns.

Material to care for 50,000 people is stored in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But what is missing is the infrastructure and the will of donor countries to provide large sums of money ahead of any war.

There are political reasons for that. ''We don't want to anticipate a war,'' explained a European diplomat in Amman. In practice, aid workers complain, this means government technical experts are simply not available.

Such help is necessary in a place like Ruwayshid where water only comes from deep wells. There is a deposit of salt water some 400 metres deep that has to be purified when it is brought to the surface.

''Water is the biggest problem here,'' said Bronee. He said he thinks the camps have to be ready to accept between 5,000 and 10,000 people in a few weeks' time.

This could increase hugely according to how any war progressed. Refugees in Jordan are usually accommodated in a military zone in the desert, where the Amman government would want them to stay.

Jordan has already accepted millions of Palestinians and refugees from Iraq in recent decades, and the country fears that a new generation of refugees could come and stay on.

Even now there is a large Iraqi community in Jordan to receive family members.

''I worry about my family over there,'' says one black-clad female refugee who sells cigarettes in the centre of Amman. She earns a maximum of five Jordanian dinar, about six euro (dollars) every day and often a lot less.

''If it were better in Iraq, I would not be here,'' she says. She then looks around anxiously because the exile community are very afraid of the Iraqi secret service, who are also active in Jordan.

Iraq's neighbours and aid organizations hope that in the event of war most of the estimated 24 million Iraqis stay at home and receive aid there as quickly as possible.

Aid organizations, such as the German refugee charity Cap Anamur, have doctors on standby. The United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP) is laying down large stores of food in neighbouring countries.

The aim is to be able to care for 900,000 people for ten weeks, but donor countries have provided only a third of what has been asked for.

''We cannot shut our eyes to the possibility of war,'' said WFP spokesman Maarten Roest.

dpa ch abc ao sc AP-NY-03-04-03 0559EST

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