Agencies preparing to help Iraqis who may flee if war starts

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

AMMAN, Jordan -- Fearing a repeat of the refugee crisis sparked by the Gulf War and its aftermath, aid agencies and governments are quietly drawing up plans and stockpiling supplies to help Iraqis who may flee their country if new fighting breaks out.

Neighboring countries, which took in more than 3 million displaced people a decade ago, hope to avoid a flood of migrants by sealing their borders and setting up refugee camps inside Iraq. Aid officials doubt, however, that the flow of frightened Iraqis can be halted at the border.

Either way, huge amounts of supplies could be needed on short notice. International relief agencies are rapidly trying to fill warehouses in the region.

"All of them are preparing for what should happen if there should be a reason for people to flee," said Roland Huguenin of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He was bound for Baghdad with a team of doctors Monday.

'The nightmare'

Most worrying is a scenario in which a cornered Saddam Hussein unleashes the biological or chemical weapons that Washington alleges he has -- harming civilians in the process.

"Here is the nightmare," said Jamal Hattar, director of Caritas operations in Jordan. "I cannot pretend we have the capacity to respond to such a thing."

Christer Aqvist, head of the regional delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said antibiotics or other antidotes are not part of the stockpiles. "But of course we can easily mobilize."

Red Crescent societies from all of Iraq's neighbors -- Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Turkey -- held an unpublicized meeting in Geneva on Oct. 16-17 to coordinate contingency plans. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society participated by phone, Aqvist said.

Talks have also been under way with U.N. agencies, but preparations have been kept low-profile to avoid giving the impression that war is imminent or inevitable.

"If you buy two bottles of water, people say, 'Oh, do you know something?'" Aqvist said. "The Red Cross is not expecting war. I hope war will not come. But if war is coming, we have to be prepared."

The federation had planned to stock six warehouses inside Iraq with $1.5 million worth of tents, blankets, heaters, kerosene lamps and personal items like soap by the end of 2003.

But "based on the current political situation," officials decided to try to meet that goal by the end of this year, Aqvist said. They're also building up stocks in other countries.

Most governments are expected to try to keep displaced people in Iraq, to avoid being saddled with the burden of taking them in.

But persuading frightened people to stay in border camps may not be easy, especially if there is fighting nearby. Many also will want to join relatives living in neighboring countries.

About 1.25 million Iraqis fled into Iran during the 1991 Gulf War and an ensuing, failed uprising against Saddam in southern Iraq. About 500,000 are still there, Chatelard estimates.

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