By DAVID USBORNE
NEW YORK - The United Nations is engaging in an urgent behind-the-scenes effort to prepare for the possibility of a major humanitarian crisis in Iraq in case weapons inspections fail and the country comes under military attack.
Anxiety is growing at UN headquarters that an American-led assault on Iraq could displace as many as 900,000 refugees, wreak havoc with the country's transport and power systems and quickly worsen malnutrition and health problems for its already struggling population. The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has privately encouraged his agencies to make ready for such a crisis but has asked that the preparations be conducted discreetly to avoid giving any impression that he has given up on the inspections process. Meetings to consider plans are being chaired by his deputy, Louise Frechette.
"Obviously contingency planning has to be ongoing," a spokesman for Mr Annan confirmed. "This organisation has to be ready for these developments even though we still hope they won't happen and Iraq will comply with Resolution 1441."
A spokesman for Unicef in New York confirmed this week that the agency has begun stockpiling food and medical supplies in warehouses in countries that neighbour Iraq and has been laying other contingency plans for the possibility of widespread disruption since about August.
"It would be hard to say that we are ready to be honest, but we are certainly preparing to be ready," the spokesman said. "It's not clear if there will be a conflict, how long it might be or how widespread it might be. But clearly, we can't really be ready for the very worst."
Under the gravest scenario, Iraq could become crippled by the impact of war. Obvious targets for military planners include road and rail bridges and the power grid. Oil production, which provides the funds for the UN's oil-for-food humanitarian programme in Iraq, might cease. Water supplies could also be impaired. The worst of the destruction is likely to be centred in and around the capital, Baghdad.
The threat of war aside, UN aid agencies are already struggling to cope with the country's humanitarian needs. "Even without the prospect of helping millions more in Iraq, we are heading into a year like none we've ever seen, a tide of need almost incomprehensible in scope," remarked Sara Piepmeier of the UN's World Food Programme.
Earlier this month, the UN quietly appealed to ten donor countries to provide up to $72 million to pay for preparations for a humanitarian calamity. Washington also said last week that it was laying its own plans for the delivery of food rations to the Iraqi people once a war has started.
The UN agencies also face the likelihood that their own staff members on the ground in Iraq may have to be evacuated if a conflict intensifies. Unicef currently has large programme in the country, run about 300 people. Of those, roughly 70 are international staff.
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