ROME (Reuters) - The United Nations food aid agency will launch a series of operations in Iraq that could become the largest humanitarian effort in history, an agency official said on Thursday.
"These operations could cost over $1 billion," the official with the Rome-based World Food Programme (WFP) told Reuters hours after the United States unleashed war on Iraq.
The collapse of the U.N.-backed oil-for-food programme after the United Nations ordered its international staff to leave Iraq on Monday has denied fresh food supplies to 60 percent of the country's 25 million people.
WFP, the world's largest food aid agency, says Iraqis have about six weeks of food supplies in reserve and that warehouse stocks are almost empty.
The WFP official said the agency would need to launch a huge humanitarian effort as soon as its staff can work safely again in the country to feed hungry Iraqis.
The oil-for-food system allowed Iraq, still living under U.N. trade sanctions imposed on Baghdad after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, to export oil and use the proceeds to provide basic necessities.
The WFP official warned that Iraqis could face a hunger crisis unless vast quantities of food reach them soon.
"The situation would be devastating if adequate food supplies are not in place within weeks," the official said. "We will require that donors respond as soon as possible after the U.N. issues a consolidated document very soon. This may well evolve into the largest humanitarian operation in history."
The WFP official told Reuters: "The challenge is that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food will need to be ordered within days. With each extra day, there will be more suffering."
WFP has stockpiled almost 30,000 tonnes of food in countries bordering Iraq under an initial contingency plan to feed two million people for a month, the WFP official said.
But that is just the start. WFP may eventually have to feed the entire population depending on how the war drags on.
WFP has 800 Iraqi staff members still operating inside Iraq, the official said.
Over the next four weeks, WFP would focus on the flow of Iraqis pouring into other countries.
"Some 2.1 million people may need help in the coming four weeks in an initial phase," the official said.
"In four to six weeks we may have to assist the whole Iraqi population."
The WFP official said the agency hoped that after four months it would be able to scale down its operation to focus on the most vulnerable five million people, while Iraq would launch a system to feed the bulk of its people.
WFP has drafted contracts with truck companies that would deliver food aid to hungry Iraqis, the official said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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