Image: Iraqi refugees swarm around a truck
Iraqi refugees swarm around a truck where Saudi soldiers were distributing food at a makeshift refugee camp near Safwan, Iraq, along the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border in 1991. U.N. aid agencies are drawing up plans in case there is a repeat crisis.
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msnbc.com

The United Nations has exerted its considerable diplomatic muscle to prevent a war in Iraq, banging heads on the Security Council and empowering a weapons inspections team to disarm Saddam Hussein. But away from the cameras — and avoiding the spotlight — the global body also has drawn up plans for a possible humanitarian crisis if hostilities break out, according to U.N. officials.

The various front-line aid agencies have already drafted contingency plans for ministering to the wounded and caring for tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Stephanie Bunker, a spokeswoman for the Office for the U.N. Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the draft plan outlines the likely needs for the relief organizations as well as the cost. She declined to discuss the price tag.

Armed with the estimates, Deputy Secretary General Louise Fréchette went to Washington this week to discuss the various scenarios with U.S. officials.

Her office confirmed the discussions Monday dealt with the contingency humanitarian plans for Iraq among other issues. A spokeswoman declined to offer details on the talks. However, other aid officials said Fréchette wanted to gauge U.S. willingness to round up donors for humanitarian relief.

UNIQUE ISSUES

Iraq poses a unique set of problems for aid groups — inside and outside the United Nations — not the least of which is that there is not, as of now, any new emergency in the Gulf nation.

War hasn’t been declared and the United Nations just may be successful in disarming Saddam Hussein without the United States resorting to military force.

But given that the United States has moved thousands of troops, as well as tanks, aircraft carriers and other support facilities to the region, aid groups fear they may be left behind. In a recent letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee, complained about the lack of coordination between the U.N. agencies, NGOs, neighboring countries and humanitarian assistance donors.

“Without such coordination, we risk being unprepared for a critical emergency response to the needs of the Iraqi people,” he wrote to Annan while calling for the appointment of a Special Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq.

ACTIVE IN THE COUNTRY

A select few humanitarian organizations have been active in Iraq since the Persian Gulf War, where many civilians are still suffering from the aftermath of the 1991 war.

According to these groups, civilians have borne the brunt of U.N. sanctions imposed on the Baghdad regime. For example, the U.N. children’s fund, UNICEF, reported that the infant mortality rate doubled over the past 10 years due to a dearth of medical supplies.

The United States has blamed Saddam for the problem, asserting the Iraqi leader has diverted funds and supplies made available through the U.N.’s oil-for-food problem.

In addition, thousands of Iraqis are refugees in neighboring nations — there are 200,000 alone in Iran — and many more are “internally displaced,” having fled Saddam to the semi-autonomous Kurdish regions in northern Iraq.

FINANCIAL BURDEN

A new war would exacerbate the challenges for the hard-pressed relief groups.

Even a short war would heavily tax aid organizations. In Afghanistan, where the United States sent the ruling Taliban regime packing within two months last year, the humanitarian work continues.

The scale of the poverty and deprivation is not as grave in Iraq, but aid groups are straining to meet the rapid-fire demands of the crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as famines in southern and east Africa, conflicts in central and West Africa and a slow-burning civil war in Colombia.

Moreover, a war in Iraq would likely reverberate throughout the Gulf region, with inflows and outflows of refugees between Iraq and neighboring states.

A key agency, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has already pared back its budget this year and the emergency fund had hit rock bottom.

Without considering the cost of an Iraq war, UNHCR is already short $25 million, spokesman Peter Kessler said.

“It’s useful to have [contingency] plans, but in the end it would be necessary to have funds and supplies on the ground,” he said. “We are a long way from that now.”

Kessler noted the problem is not simply Iraq. There are nearly 20 million refugees across the globe — all of whom place demands on the agency, which depends on voluntary contributions.

MORE PLANNING

Plans also have been drawn up at the other relief agencies, inside and outside the United Nations.

UNICEF spokesman Alfred Ironside said the organization, which boasts a staff of around 300 inside Iraq, is in good shape ahead of any conflict. “We have topped up our supplies even in neighboring countries,” he said.

While declining to go into details, Khaled Mansour of the U.N.-mandated World Food Program said that contingency plan for Iraq have been drawn up, “as we do for many other countries.”

Red Cross spokeswoman Marie-Francois Borel said the charity has speeded up emergency preparedness in Iraq. This has included stockpiling emergency relief items, such as tents, blankets and first aid kits as well as improving its telecommunications equipment.

According to the Red Cross, the immediate objective is to cater for the essential needs of 100,000 people during a period of 10 days.

“We are not making a judgement about what would happen but we would be the last organization to be forgiven if we were not prepared,” the Geneva-based organization’s president Jakob Kellenberger said Tuesday.

U.S. PROHIBITION

U.S.-based non-governmental groups (NGOs) face a further hurdle as they envision demands in the weeks and months ahead.

Under U.S. law, Americans are prohibited from going to Iraq unless they obtain a waiver from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is run by the U.S. Treasury. In general, waivers only are granted to groups or individuals engaged in work tied to the U.N. oil-for-food program.

“There is a way to get waivers for humanitarian work, but so far the aid community has had a difficult time in getting that,” said Save the Children’s emergency coordinator Bob Laprade.

“We understand it’s being considered by the U.S. government and we have confidence and hope their hearts will open up to the Iraqi children,” he said.

Sandra Mitchell, Vice President, Government Relations with the International Rescue Committee, said the travel ban should be completely lifted.

In addition to a request to go to Iraq to hammer out contingency plans, Mitchell noted that the IRC has longstanding applications with the Treasury to enter Iran to care for Afghan refugees and Kurd-administered northern Iraq, neither of which have been granted.

Otherwise, U.S.-based NGOs will be crippled in their efforts to prepare for relief efforts, she said.

However, a Treasury official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that apart from a select handful chosen by the State Department, waivers won’t be granted to groups seeking to enter Iraq on the premise that the United States is about to launch a war.

(Sean Federico-O’Murchu is an international news producer/editor for MSNBC.com)

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