As the U.S. military gears up for a possible war in Iraq, so too are U.S. and international relief agencies that will deal with humanitarian needs during and after any conflict there. Food, water and temporary shelters are already being stockpiled in the region to try to prevent a humanitarian crisis and experts say more needs to be done.
United Nations officials estimate two million Iraqis or more could flee their homes and end up in neighboring countries or displaced inside Iraq itself. U.S. experts agree there could be that many if things go badly.
That would add to some 800,000 Iraqis already registered as displaced from their homes by Baghdad's policies. Another 700,000 are listed as refugees outside Iraq's borders.
Temporary refugee camps have been set up in a few places along Iraq's borders with Turkey and Iran. Other neighbors are reluctant to open their borders to an influx of refugees.
David McLachlan-Karr of the U.N. Humanitarian Affairs Office underlines the vulnerability of Iraq's 24 million citizens who have already suffered the effects of 12 years of economic sanctions, the massive resources diverted to Iraq's costly military build-up and two wars in the past 20 years.
"Iraq is a very vulnerable population," he said. "One million children under five are considered to be chronically malnourished. Five million Iraqis lack regular access to safe water and sanitation. Sixty percent of the country is actually dependent on the government for food and to meet their household needs, which means any disruption will have an immediate affect."
U.S. civilian and military planners have been working for the past five months on how to deal with that crisis. Joseph Collins, deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations says that the U.S. government is devoting unprecedented attention to humanitarian relief.
George Ward of the Defense Department's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance insists the American military's role is not to run the relief effort but to assist those with expertise in the field.
"The first role related to humanitarian assistance concern is to provide space for humanitarian assistance," he explained. "Secondly to facilitate relief operations by international aid organizations. And third, to coordinate efforts insofar as other organizations wish to be part of that effort and to share information."
And, Mr. Collins added that the military also will avoid targeting relief facilities.
"We're engaged in human mapping where we are acquiring info to ensure the combat forces know where the enemy is and where the GO and international facilities and other facilities that have humanitarian impact are," he said.
The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, says a top priority is to prevent major disruptions of U.N. sponsored oil-for-food program, which is distributed through the state-run computerized food network. Six out of ten Iraqis depend it for survival.
"Should there be a conflict, our intention is to protect the existing system. It is funded through the U.N. Oil-For Food Program," he said. "We expect and want that program to continue, because the system works."
Maintaining that service will be complicated because U.N. staffers who run the program will have to be evacuated and would return only after the conflict ends.
In the meantime, Defense Department official Joe Collins said U.S. forces plan to provide relief as they advance. A 60-member disaster relief response team would be deployed near the front lines to help coordinate aid emergencies, human rights and refugee issues as well as reconstruction needs. Mr. Collins did not give an exact figure, but added that several thousand AID and military civil affairs people would be involved in relief efforts.
For security analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, any U.S. relief operations in Iraq will be sharply scrutinized by the Arab world. To avoid a backlash, he pointed out, the humanitarian response must be fast and full.
"It should be enough that it's a humanitarian and moral issue but it's also a security issue," he said. "We all know that, let's face it, a lot of the radical Muslim world and a lot of the Arab press is not fair toward the United States. And every mistake we make in this operation is going to get a lot more attention that what we do right."
U.S., Red Cross and U.N. relief agencies are already stockpiling food, water, medicine and temporary shelters in the region. So far, U.S. officials say there is more than $17 million worth of supplies to meet the short-term needs of about one million people.
But U.N. and international relief agencies say much more needs to be done and the money to fund the operations is not yet there.
Non-governmental organizations mapping out their strategies say they are handicapped because of their limited presence inside Iraq. International Rescue Committee Director Sandra Mitchell says money for supplies is only now trickling in. She blames the slow response on the unfinished debate over the use of force to disarm Iraq.
"There has been some money trickling out to increase capacity of NGOs in the region but very, very little. Why is that? Because some governments do not want to be seen to be preparing for war," said Ms. Mitchell. "And sending NGOs and humanitarian organizations into the region by some is perceived as a signal in that direction."
The United Nations has launched an appeal for more than $123 million to pay for additional food and emergency supplies. The Bush administration will be making its own appeal to the U.S. Congress for more funds too.