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De-mining of Umm Qasr Port Complicates Unloading of Humanitarian Aid to Iraq - 2003-03-26

The White House says humanitarian aid will flow into Iraq once the main gateway, the port of Umm Qasr, is declared safe. An extensive de-mining operation is under way.

President Bush had hoped to see the first massive shipments of aid reach Iraq by now. But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the main entry point must be checked for Iraqi mines.

"Coalition forces are currently sweeping the port for mines a necessary prelude for incoming humanitarian traffic," he said.

Mr. Fleischer noted two Iraqi tug boats carrying mines have already been intercepted. British commanders in the region say the port has now been secured. But he said ships can not enter until the de-mining operation is complete. "This is a question of the mines, not the fighting on the ground. It is a question of the mines," he explained.

He pointed out that, for the time being, American forces are delivering rations one-by-one to needy Iraqis they encounter. He said getting shiploads of food and medicine into the country is a priority, along with establishing distribution networks.

The White House spokesman said all this could have been accomplished sooner, if the Iraqi regime were more concerned about the lives of its people.

"This is a real sign of what the Iraqi regime will do," he said. "They are more willing to block their own port, starve their own people, stop humanitarian aid from coming through. All the efforts that we are making in the middle of a shooting war to feed the Iraqi people are a reflection on how the United States and our allies fight wars."

He spoke on a day when the White House dispatched the president's national security advisor to the U.N. for talks with Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Mr. Fleischer said Condoleezza Rice's discussions at the U.N. focused on the humanitarian situation in Iraq, the suspended oil-for-food program and the outlook for the country once the war is over.