BAGHDAD (Reuters) - United Nations aid workers are racing against time to protect the weakest and most vulnerable of Iraq's 25 million people from the devastating impact of potential war, the U.N.'s Children Fund said.
"It's a very bleak scenario," UNICEF representative in Iraq Carel de Rooy said in an interview on Thursday night. "And it's a race against time, we're running against time."
With the United States on the brink of possible invasion and most people still reeling from Iraq's last two wars and a decade of economic sanctions, de Rooy said UNICEF would concentrate on supporting those most at risk.
It will start handing out high protein biscuits to underfed children next week and aims to immunise three million against measles by the end of the month. It is also preparing emergency water supplies for the capital, Baghdad.
"What we're doing is focusing on the high risk factors, to try to do what we can," de Rooy said.
But there is little time to tackle the legacy of years of malnutrition. A quarter of Iraq's children under five are stunted and four percent -- or nearly 200,000 -- are so underweight they are classified as "wasted".
For them to reach their proper weight would take two months' supply of the special biscuits -- 1,000 tonnes of which have been distributed around the country.
"We hope to start (handing them out) next week. You figure it out," de Rooy said of the tight timetable facing UNICEF.
The United States and Britain have massed tens of thousands of troops in the Gulf for a possible attack on Iraq and is expected to push next week for United Nations support to launch a war to rid Iraq of its alleged weapons of mass destruction.
FOOD SUPPLY DISRUPTIONS
Relief agencies have warned that military action is almost certain to disrupt food handouts to millions of Iraqis who depend on government food rations every month.
Iraqis still live under trade sanctions imposed in 1990 after Baghdad's invasion of Kuwait. Since 1996 Iraq has been able to sell oil and buy food and medicines with a portion of the proceeds.
But aid workers say the arrangement barely scratches the surface of its needs. A study last year found only a modest fall in malnutrition rates among children under five since the "oil- for-food" deal began.
A separate study found that the proportion of children who died before their fifth birthday soared to 13 percent in the decade leading up to 1999.
De Rooy said measles and diarrhoea were major dangers if war broke out, particularly if water and sewage works were disrupted and large numbers were forced from their homes.
"There is a high risk of sewage flooding and four million people in Baghdad being affected by that," he said. "And as temperatures go up you can imagine what that would do to diarrhoea."
Teams were "running around the country" to ensure standby generators were in place to continue both water supplies and sewage disposal.
If water distribution collapses completely in the capital, UNICEF had pumps and filters to pump water straight from the river Tigris which could help supply around 15 litres a day -- one-twentieth of pre-1990 levels, to the city's inhabitants.
Last month's measles inoculation campaign, which targeted children under five, is also being expanded to cover those up to the age of 12 -- another three million children -- by the end of March.
Unless time runs out for UNICEF.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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