U.S. Aid Is Getting Lost In the Fog of War

Stiff Iraqi resistance is stalling relief

Even before the opening shots of the Battle for Baghdad were fired, President George W. Bush went to great lengths to advance his other War -- the one that's aimed at winning the hearts and minds of 23 million Iraqis. Like the real war, this one may be no cakewalk, either.

On Mar. 25, Bush announced plans to spend $3.5 billion to rebuild Iraq and distribute a mountain of food. The scale of the coming humanitarian aid effort, vows U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) head Andrew S. Natsios, will dwarf anything that the U.S. has done since World War II. "Soon," Bush said, "the Iraqi people will see the great compassion of not only the United States, but other nations around the world who care deeply about the human conditions inside that country."

The President's promises of quick aid could prove tough to keep, however, if dangerous conditions continue to leave relief workers sidelined. The U.S. military's initial strategy -- skirting the major cities on the way to Baghdad, and leaving behind small numbers of troops to protect the flanks -- has kept a large disaster response unit holed up in the Hilton Kuwait Resort, for example. "Our people are not soldiers," says Natsios. So far, the delays have deprived the Administration of the positive images of relief efforts it had hoped TV cameras would quickly start beaming across the region.

This is especially true in the southern city of Basra, where a severe water shortage occurred when the electricity was severed and water pumps stopped working. And although coalition forces were in control at Umm Qasr, Iraq's busiest port, mines in the harbor delayed relief ships from arriving. On Mar. 26, only seven trucks, out of what originally had been planned as a 30-truck convoy of food and water, limped into the city under military escort.

Still, a week into the war, the much-feared humanitarian crisis has so far shown little sign of developing. Refugees were not yet a problem and there was no sign of food shortages. Before the war began, the Iraqi government gave some 16 million people double rations under the now-suspended U.N. food-for-oil program, allowing enough food stockpiling to last five weeks, according to some estimates. Whether a deeper crisis will emerge, however, clearly depends on the length of the conflict -- particularly as the fighting moves towards urban centers in Basra, Baghdad, and elsewhere.

Also key is whether the U.S. succeeds in bringing in nongovernmental organizations; many of those with experience in running relief efforts have so far been little involved. Natsios says AID soon will notify some 30 NGOs that grant money is on the way.

Making Iraq safe for aid convoys is crucial. U.S. commanders aim to station more troops in the rear, which may provide aid workers with sufficient security. But if Iraqis start going without, the blame will fall squarely on Bush -- and that's the last thing America needs right now.

By Paula Dwyer in Washington and Stanley Reed in Kuwait City, with Laura Cohn in Doha, Qatar

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