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The Humanitarian Effort in Iraq

March 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: For that I’m joined by Andrew Natsios; he’s the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. What word are you getting back from the battle zone about the state of the civilian population of Iraq?

ANDREW NATSIOS: People appear to be staying in their homes. We’re not getting reports of massive population movements, which we were afraid of, because people become very vulnerable to food shortages and health problems when they leave their homes. There’s a small movement of Kurds who are in Iraqi-held Iraq to the Kurdish-held area in the North, which is a wise thing to do for protection, but it’s in the thousands; it’s not millions of people by any stretch of the imagination. So we do not right now have a humanitarian emergency on our hands.

RAY SUAREZ: In the last several years, the Iraqi government had become one of the largest sources of food inside the country. Today the secretary of defense talked about a government that was sort of starting to collapse, starting to crumble. What does that mean for near-term food security?

ANDREW NATSIOS: We now have either on the way or ordered 840,000 tons of food between the United Nations, the World Food Program, who will run the food system for the country, between the Australians and the United States.

The United States announced 500,000 tons of rice and wheat. I did that with Ann Veneman, the secretary of agriculture, yesterday. We’d already shipped 110,000 tons. The World Food Program has 130,000 tons positioned in the region, and the Australian government announced today, I believe, 100,000 tons donation that they’d be making. So we’re up to 840,000 tons, which is almost enough for two months’ worth of food. So I think we should be okay. We’ve got to order some vegetable oil and lentils or beans for protein to make the food basket balanced.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the front line is moving deeper into Iraq. Once civilian populations are behind that front line, how do those sacks of food get down to village level, down to town level?

ANDREW NATSIOS: What our intention is, through the World Food Program, the United Nations, is to have the food distribution system, which has worked relatively efficiently, stood up again. There are 55,000 food distributions, and they’re basically local stores, and they handle two or three hundred people per unit. That system has worked. It’s a computerized system.

The only problem has been the central government, the Iraqi government, has used it as a weapon against populations like the marsh Arabs or the Turkmen that they wanted to purge. They shut them off for food. We want to do one thing, is make sure everybody gets the same ration, based on need, and that no populations are excluded. So there’ll be some adjustments made, but we want to set up that system again. The World Food Program is prepared to do that. They’ve been planning for several months for this. It’s an efficient system, it works well, and we think that it will feed the population in a reasonable way.

RAY SUAREZ: From what you’ve said so far, it sounds like you think things are going reasonably well.

ANDREW NATSIOS: So far.

RAY SUAREZ: Right. Well, exactly. This is still a very hot area. What are some of the things that you worry about going wrong? What are some of the dangers in the near term?

ANDREW NATSIOS: We don’t know what the Iraqi government, if there’s a government left, has given orders to do. We’ve been worried about the use of chemical and biological weapons against their own population because their own population hates the central government so much, that they may well try in a last-ditch effort to reap destruction across the country, to go after their own people, which they’ve done before. We’re worried about oil fires, but so far that has not happened. We’re worried about mass population movements. That has not happened. So, thus far, we’re okay, and the campaign, the military campaign is carefully targeted to avoid damaging civilian infrastructure, and focus on military and political targets that affect the war effort and leave the civilian population alone. We’re able to do that with our technology now.

RAY SUAREZ: Some NGO’s have started to express publicly worries about being frozen out, not being at the table soon enough. Have they been able to get the passes they need to get into the country? Are they able to start their work in the country?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, the country’s still at war. This is not a little guerrilla war here or there; this is a conventional war in an historic sense of the word; and NGO’s would not be in this war setting in any other war. The only, the only group in the world that is set up to work under these circumstances is the International Committee of the Red Cross. They did not leave, even when the U.N. left, U.N. agencies left last week, and so, the ICRC is still there. They have the mandate for working in the middle of a conventional war. They’re still doing their work there. America has always been the largest donor to the ICRC. They’re an excellent Swiss-based organization out of Geneva, and we’re confident that, in the immediate term, that the ICRC can handle those needs.

In the next phase of this, as the war winds down, we hope quickly, the NGO’s will move in with the U.N. agencies and handle any larger humanitarian needs for the next several months, but we will begin the reconstruction effort immediately. We are putting contracts in place now that, once the conflict is over and there’s a permissive environment, we will begin the reconstruction of the country, working with other donor governments, I might add. This is not just an American effort. I have been talking with my counterparts in ministries and other donor governments, western countries, that want to help on the humanitarian side and the long-term reconstruction side, so this will be an international effort, not just an American effort.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Natsios, thanks for joining us.

ANDREW NATSIOS: Thank you very much.