US announces intention to rely on civilian relief agencies for humanitarian response in Iraq

Responding to the concerns of Refugees International and other members of the InterAction coalition of humanitarian organizations, the United States has announced its intention to rely primarily on civilian relief agencies to respond to the needs of the Iraqi people in the event of a war in Iraq. This commitment, while welcome, will nonetheless be difficult to implement given the obstacles to establishing a large-scale civilian humanitarian presence in the region with war looming.

On February 24th, The Bush Administration finally presented its humanitarian relief strategy in the event of war in Iraq. RI, along with other NGOs, has been calling for the Administration to be more forthcoming with its plans in the interest of provoking public discussion and assessment of the possible humanitarian consequences of the war. RI is concerned that humanitarian preparations have been inadequate (A Joint Statement by RI and the International Rescue Committee) and the Administration public statements this week were intended to allay these fears.

The Administration is centering its relief strategy on six principles. These principles --- minimizing civilian displacement and damage to civilian infrastructure; relying on civilian relief agencies; committing to effective civil-military coordination; facilitating the operations of international organizations and NGOs; pre-positioning of relief supplies; supporting the resumption of the ration distribution system --- are generally in line with recommendations that RI put forward on February 5th in our report, "Avoiding a Humanitarian Catastrophe in Iraq". The primary question at this stage is to what extent the Administration's actual preparations put it in a position to live up to these principles.

The commitment to minimizing displacement and damage to civilian infrastructure is welcome, and is in keeping with the obligations of the United States as the occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The most critical issue in this regard is limiting damage to Iraq's electrical grid, which powers water treatment and sewage facilities for the majority of the population. Iraq is an urbanized country and disruption of electric power will leave millions of people without access to clean water, in turn causing vulnerability to preventable diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, and respiratory infections.

The commitment to rely on civilian relief agencies is also welcome, but the U.S. approach during the preparatory phase will make this commitment difficult to realize. By strictly applying Iraq sanctions, the Administration prevented NGOs from conducting humanitarian assessments in Iraq, including Kurdish areas in the north. Indeed, the regulations were so strictly enforced that even grants to NGOs from the State Department's Near East Bureau were delayed for months by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. Whether through bureaucratic inertia or deliberate policy, the U.S. has effectively blocked NGO access to Iraq until very recently.

The Administration further undermined the commitment to civilian relief agencies by placing the office for the reconstruction of Iraq in the Department of Defense under the leadership of a retired three-star general. This sends the message, not only to U.S. NGOs, but to potential UN partners, that the Pentagon will be in control of the post-conflict reconstruction process in Iraq.

The U.S. is preparing a large Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to deploy in areas of Iraq as the military campaign proceeds and as security permits. The problem is that there is little humanitarian capacity in Iraq at the moment, with few international NGOs present and with the UN largely limited to personnel overseeing the Oil-for-Food Program. Given this vacuum, the military will inevitably have to accept responsibility for the basic needs of Iraqi civilians as the conflict ends in particular regions. The military will have the only real capacity available to respond to urgent needs.

The Administration's commitment to facilitating the operations of international organizations and NGOs is belied by the low funding levels and slow disbursement of funds to support their work. The U.S. has provided $24.2 million to UN agencies, but this funding was unnecessarily delayed, whereas an early commitment when the appeal was announced in December would have jump-started the UN's contingency planning. The funding provided to date represents less than 20 percent of the funding that the UN system requires to position basic relief supplies. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is especially vulnerable to being overwhelmed by a large-scale refugee outflow. The UN requires $150-160 million to make the essential preparations for the humanitarian response. In contrast, the U.S. has already spent at least $2.1 billion to position its troops in the Gulf region.

In terms of pre-positioning supplies, the U.S. has stockpiled essential emergency supplies for one million people. These supplies are in the process of being shipped to the region. The U.S. is also stockpiling 2.89 million Humanitarian Daily Rations, the meal packets similar to the ones air-dropped in Afghanistan. To put this number in perspective, 16 million Iraqis depend on the government's ration system for their entire daily food supply. While several months of rations have reportedly been distributed, some of these supplies may have been sold to meet other household needs.

Individual meal packets will meet only a fraction of Iraq's food needs. The capacity to mobilize and distribute large quantities of basic food supplies, using the local network of the government's ration system, is essential to preventing a large-scale food emergency in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. RI, thus, strongly endorses the U.S. commitment to minimize disruption to the ration distribution network.

For further information, please contact Joel R. Charny, Vice President for Policy, at