By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - Humanitarian agencies and diplomats from nearly 30 key countries agreed on Sunday that the world should "plan for the worst" in Iraq to help save millions of ordinary Iraqis from tragedy in case of a U.S.-led war.
Officials and delegates said that was the general conclusion of a weekend meeting called by the Swiss government to discuss the social consequences of a conflict and how its effects on civilians could be minimised.
"We all hope for the best. We all hope that this war will not happen," meeting chairman Walter Fust of Switzerland told a news conference. "But the feeling is that we must prepare for the worst."
Countries and agencies attending agreed they would now get their own planning under way, and many indicated they would donate to a fund to be launched shortly by the United Nations humanitarian relief body OCHA.
Finland's former defence minister, Elizabeth Rehn, said her experience as a U.N. human rights investigator of the effects of conflict on civilians, especially women and children, had made her an opponent of war.
But preparations for handling floods of refugees, repairing damaged water and power lines and keeping food supplies flowing were essential, she told reporters.
"The first period after any war is critical. That is when the casualties start building up, perhaps many more than in the course of the hostilities."
Rehn warned that a potential humanitarian disaster could be turned into a full-scale tragedy if the coming harvest in Iraq, which was expected to be good, were disrupted by war.
OPPOSITION TO WAR
Swiss officials say Foreign Minister Micheline Calmet-Rey's decision to convene the meeting arose from a feeling that many countries were refusing to look at planning for relief operations because they opposed a war.
But Eric Hoskins, President of Canadian humanitarian body War Child and one of the first aid workers into Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, said be believed the gathering may have helped get over that problem.
"This has been a catalytic and has helped to bring the issue out into the open public domain where it deserves to be," he told reporters.
Hoskins said several hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children had died since 1991 from water contamination because of the destruction of pumping, pipes and sewage systems that had not been repaired since the conflict.
There was little reason to believe the situation would be different after any war launched by the United States in a bid to disarm President Saddam Hussein, whom Washington accuses of concealing weapons of mass destruction.
Although invited, The United States declined to attend the meeting, but Britain, which backs the stance of U.S. President George W. Bush on the need to disarm Saddam, sent a diplomat and a government humanitarian assistance specialist.
There were delegations from Russia, China and Germany, which currently oppose a war. France, which shares their stance, sent an observer. Officials were also present from countries around Iraq, including Iran and Turkey.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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