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Switzerland Hosts Humanitarian Conference on Iraq - 2003-02-14

Switzerland hosts an international conference in Geneva Saturday and Sunday to help prepare to meet humanitarian needs, if there is a war in Iraq.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation is hosting the conference. Representatives from more than 20 relief organizations, including U.N. agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, will be attending. There will also be representatives from Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Turkey, as well as Security Council member states such as Britain, France and Russia.

Agency officials say they are holding the conference for one reason only - to discuss what practical measures will be needed to get humanitarian aid to people, in the event of a war in Iraq.

Agency spokesman Joachim Ahrens stresses that the meeting has no political agenda. He says it will focus exclusively on relief efforts. "We try to keep this meeting on a strict humanitarian level and of course, given the broad context, the risk is obvious that it might be misunderstood as a political initiative," he said. "It is not a political meeting."

Mr. Ahrens says, for this reason, no representatives from either Iraq or the country's northern Kurdish region have been asked to participate in the meeting.

But the Iraqi Kurdish representative to the U.N.'s humanitarian organizations, Piris Zibari, believes his group should have been invited to the conference. He says that the semi-autonomous Kurdish area of Iraq may be the first to experience the effects of war, and, therefore, should be at the conference to help plan for needed food and shelter for displaced people. "We believe that refugees will come to the northern part of Iraq, mainly because they see that as a liberated zone, already under the protection of allies," said Piris Zibari. "We would like the international community to pay attention to us, and help us coordinate this relief program."

Since December, the U.N. relief agencies have appealed for more than $100 million to get food and other humanitarian supplies in place, in case of war. Last week, Britain and the United States each announced a $15-million contribution and this week Washington pledged an additional $40 million.

Although it was invited, the United States has declined to attend the conference. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Berne, Bruce Armstrong, says U.N. agencies have already made extensive humanitarian preparations, and, therefore, he does not believe American participation is essential. "We understand that the U.N. operational agencies have been engaged in a well-coordinated contingency planning for quite some time, and have issued an appeal to support that effort," he said. "And, we are uncertain as to how the conference suggested by Switzerland would assist that planning. We believe it would be most effective to respond to the U.N. agencies' appeal."

The spokesman for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Joachim Ahrens, says, while U.S. participation at the conference would have been welcome, he respects the reasons the United States is giving for not attending the conference.

Last week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that as many as 600,000 Iraqis could flee to neighboring countries, mainly Iran and Turkey, if war breaks out.