- The Washington Times - Monday, January 27, 2003

GENEVA, Switzerland, Jan. 27 (UPI) — Major U.N. relief agencies fear they may be unable to handle a humanitarian crisis if war breaks out in Iraq because of the lack of funds from major donors such as the United States and the European Union, senior diplomats have said.

Last Dec. 13, the United Nations asked donors for an initial sum of $37.4 million to put in place contingency plans to deal with an influx of between 600,000 and 1.4 million refugees, and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people.

The contingencies also envisage putting in place a logistics structure to feed millions of Iraqis, many of whom are now dependent on government handouts, and providing medical assistance to large numbers of helpless civilians.

To date, "we have received no funding," said Ron Redmond, spokesman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"We have no pledges, no commitments," said an official from another major U.N. relief agency, who declined to be identified.

Asked about the U.N. request, a high-level U.S. official said: "The funding request is under review in Washington, and we have not yet responded."

Similarly, an EU diplomat said the problem for the 15-member grouping is that it's "difficult to pledge money for a crisis that has not taken place yet."

The EU diplomat added Europe still does not consider that war is unavoidable.

Washington says Iraq's Saddam Hussein is concealing weapons of mass destruction. U.N. inspectors are at present in the country to search for any such weapons, which are banned. Washington says Saddam is misleading the inspectors and has threatened war to disarm his regime.

Nevertheless, EU diplomats say Brussels is getting prepared for the worst and would be able to respond with funds and humanitarian assistance "within a day," if hostilities begin.

An ambassador from a major Western donor country, who declined to be identified, said, "Yes, if there's sudden humanitarian needs, we would be there."

The envoy said money for humanitarian emergencies "are set aside in the budget … and when things happen, we move quickly."

However, UNHCR's Redmond cautioned against donor countries failing to act, until actual hostilities, or on the assumption the global refugee agency would be able to manage with a large refugee crisis without adequate funds.

"These may be high expectations, but they're not realistic," he said.

Redmond added the agency has spent all it can to prepare for essential non-food items such as tents, cooking stoves water containers, and other essentials.

The agency has spent $19 million, all of which has come from operational reserves, Redmond said.

"Conflict is not inevitable but we must make contingencies," Redmond said.

Rudd Lubbers, UNHCR chief, has also been in close touch with governments in the region, and with Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, over humanitarian preparation efforts.

In the event of a war, UNHCR has reminded governments' of the need to keep borders open to refugees and to provide temporary protection, Redmond said.

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