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Swiss Officials Warn of Humanitarian Crisis In Event of War Against Iraq - 2003-02-16

A senior Swiss official warns that millions of Iraqi civilians will face a catastrophic situation should the United Nations oil-for-food program collapse as a result of a possible war. A two-day Swiss-hosted conference on the humanitarian consequences of war in Iraq has ended in Geneva with pleas for money to finance expensive humanitarian assistance programs.

Swiss officials say a massive humanitarian crisis is almost certain in and around Iraq should a war break out.

The head of Switzerland's Agency for Development and Cooperation, Walter Fust, said the Iraqi people are in a far more vulnerable condition now than they were at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. He said years of sanctions have left many severely malnourished and sick.

Mr. Fust said 60 percent of the population depends on the food it receives from the U.N. monitored oil-for-food program. He added that the consequences for millions of Iraqi civilians will be devastating should this program fall apart under the weight of war. "That would be a catastrophe never seen in any country over the last years, and most probably a number of international actors would not be able just to cope immediately with such a situation," Mr. Fust said.

Switzerland invited 30 countries, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, to attend the humanitarian conference. The United States was the only country that refused to come, saying it was unclear how the meeting would add anything to extensive humanitarian preparations, which already were under way.

Swiss officials said they did not invite Iraq to the meeting because they wanted to avoid turning it into a political event. However, a number of U.N. and international aid agencies did participate. They exchanged information and ideas on ways to handle the consequences of any conflict.

Besides millions of civilians inside Iraq who would need assistance, the United Nations estimates that between 600,000 and 1.5 million Iraqis would seek refuge in neighboring countries. According to Mr. Fust, all the aid agencies at the meeting said they are woefully underfunded.

"Some of the donors have mechanisms that they will only pay in case there is a war. But you have now to go and to look for the investments to get ready to ease the burden or to make the cost of a war smaller," he said.

Since December, the United Nations has appealed for more than $100 million dollars to get food and other relief supplies into the region in case of war. Less than half that amount has been contributed - and most of that has come from the United States.