Iraqis may be eating, but they thirst for more than liberty

Originally published
By Frank Fuhrig, dpa

Washington (dpa) - Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's attempt to buy his people's loyalty with food as war loomed might have also insulated Iraqis from hunger amid the ongoing war.

"There is not at the moment any evidence, any good intelligence, that suggests there's a humanitarian crisis in that country,'' U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a Senate panel Thursday. "The people had been given extra rations over a period of months now, and the estimate has been that they have somewhere between two, four or six weeks of food.''

Instead of hunger, the first week of the war has exposed what was already among the weakest links in Iraq's civilian infrastructure. If there is a humanitarian crisis, particularly in the south of the country, where coalition forces are increasingly taking control, it is over water supplies.

The International Committee of the Red Cross had warned that a humanitarian crisis threatened in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city with about 1.3 million people, where much of the municipal water system shut down in the first days of the war. The U.S.-led coalition has accused Saddam's regime of cutting off electricity to the pumps that supply Basra while Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahaf blamed enemy airstrikes.

Since then, however, at least half the city has had running water restored, the Red Cross said.

"There's no doubt but that there are places where the water is not right, where some lines have been broken, and we've got trucks going in, providing water,'' Rumsfeld said. "And the U.K. has put a waterline in from Kuwait into the port of [captured Umm Qasr], and they're bringing water in.''

The wartime water crisis might only be a continuation of the lack of safe and reliable drinking water that has plagued Iraq at least since its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, when the international community imposed sanctions on it that continue today. Water problems were also exacerbated in the 1991 Gulf War.

Andrew Natsios, administrator of the State Department's U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is coordinating the immediate humanitarian response as parts of Iraq are eventually declared secure after coming under military occupation.

"A lot of the infrastructure for civilian services, like the water system, the sewer system, schools and hospitals, had been neglected over a period of a very long time because the regime - and this is in U.N. reports, this is not American propaganda - over a period of years has spent primarily to rearm the country,'' he told a group of foreign journalists on Wednesday.

"Public services have suffered over a very long period of time because the regime has not invested the money in those social services,'' he added.

By some estimates, Iraqi children have had an excess death rate of 5,000 a month because of United Nations sanctions, despite the U.N.-administered "oil-for-food'' humanitarian programme, implemented against the will of the Baghdad regime, to swap its petroleum for food, medicine and other civilian resources.

"The primary reason, according to the United Nations, for the high death rates of children under 5 is not from a lack of food,'' Natsios said. "It's because the water system is so terrible in Iraq.

"People in many cities basically drink open sewer water because the sewer treatment plants don't work. The Tigris-Euphrates River is an open sewer. They just pump the water in without treating it because the sewer plants don't work because there's been no preventative maintenance on those plants in many, many years.''

USAID already has plans to begin tackling the decaying infrastructure as soon as a secure occupation is in place, beginning with Iraq's 250 water treatment plants.

"One of our first requirements is to rebuild those plants, not structurally but the equipment in them, which we think we can do very quickly, and to provide sufficient chlorine,'' Natsios said. "That will cause the high death rates among children to dramatically drop over a couple-year period.'' dpa ff ls

AP-NY-03-27-03 2238EST

Copyright (c) 2003 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 03/27/2003 22:38:46

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