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Annan Calls on Iraq, US to Care for Welfare of Iraqi Civilians - 2003-03-24

As the fighting continues in Iraq, international relief organizations are warning of a looming humanitarian crisis. The war has cut off the supply of food and medical supplies.

U.N. and private aid agencies say a potential humanitarian disaster is in the making in Iraq.

The war has cut off normal supply sources to a country that is overwhelmingly dependent on the United Nations for food and medical aid. The situation is reported to be particularly acute in the city of Basra, where water and electric power supplies have been cut in the fighting between U.S.-led coalition troops and Iraqi defenders.

Most Iraqis rely on aid generated by the Oil for Food program. Set up under a U.N. resolution, the program allows Iraqi oil to be sold to buy food and medicine for Iraqis. The program was suspended by the onset of hostilities and all U.N. workers have been withdrawn from the country.

British International Development Secretary Claire Short told Parliament that it would be very difficult to avert a humanitarian crisis if the program is not reinstated.

Negotiations are underway at the United Nations to retool the program for the current circumstances. But there are still differences to be bridged about who will administer the program in the absence of the Iraqi-government-run distribution system.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reminded the belligerents of their duty under international law to care for civilians who come under their control. "In times of war, it is the belligerents who are responsible for the welfare and safety of the people. I have also indicated that in any situation on the occupation, it is the occupying power that has the responsibility for the welfare of the people. Without detracting from those responsibilities, the U.N. will do whatever it can to help the Iraqi population, and we will want to resume the Oil for Food as soon as possible," Mr. Annan said.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the United States is trying to get aid in as quickly as possible. "The president's statement [Sunday] was that massive humanitarian aid would begin to flow in 36 hours and that everything was being done possible to get that humanitarian relief to the people. One of the central focuses of all military planning was to make certain that humanitarian supplies were able to reach the people of Iraq as quickly as possible," Mr. Fleischer explained.

Military officials have said that some relief efforts are being held up because the captured port of Umm Qasr has not yet been cleared of mines to allow relief ships to dock there.