Cover Story

'Warming to us'

Iraqi suspicion over coalition-supplied relief is slowly melting, as a turf war begins raging in Washington

Issue: "War inside the red zone," April 12, 2003

If it's true the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, then food and water in southern Iraq have become strategic weapons in the war for public opinion. The Shiite population, already malnourished under the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein, now faces severe shortages brought on by the war. U.S. planners say they are eager to feed the Iraqi people, but they aren't getting much help from the regime-or the UN.

Expecting a siege of Baghdad, Saddam cut off water supplies from the fertile plains of central Iraq, leaving parched southerners to fend for themselves. Unexpectedly tough fighting with Fedayeen and Baath Party militias delayed the food and water that coalition forces had hoped to pump quickly into Shiite villages. Coalition forces besieged the port town of Umm Qasr, yet British troops needed two weeks before gaining enough control that they could safely take off their helmets and flak jackets.

While the British fought to restore order, the residents of Umm Qasr fought to stay alive, lapping up dirty groundwater or begging for help from passing troops. Bottled water tossed from military vehicles sparked near riots, leading to a ban on the practice.

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Finally, on March 31, British soldiers opened the taps on a hastily constructed pipeline more than a mile long, bringing 600,000 gallons of water a day over the Kuwaiti border. The officer in charge of relief efforts in Umm Qasr said local attitudes quickly changed once the water began to flow. "When we started they were extremely terrified. A uniform to them represented someone getting shot. Over the days, they began warming to us and you can see all the people understand what assistance we are giving them. They are genuinely very friendly."

In a region where the United States desperately wants to make new friends, such breakthroughs are crucial to the war effort. But plenty of obstacles stand in the way. In addition to loyalist holdouts throughout the south, war-ravaged roads make speedy delivery of aid all but impossible. More humanitarian supplies are pouring into the region from around the world, but Iraqi mines are slowing the distribution of those supplies. On April 2, for instance, an Australian ship loaded with 100 tons of grain was diverted to Kuwait because Iraqi harbors were deemed too dangerous. It will take days to transport the cargo overland along bombed-out roads.

More ships from many nations are headed to the Persian Gulf, though it's unclear who will oversee the distribution once the cargo arrives. A few UN trucks have trickled in, but most of the privately contracted drivers are waiting for greater peace in the region before venturing across the borders. The UN, which has been overseeing a massive oil-for-food program in Iraq for more than a decade, is eager to take over relief efforts as soon as order is restored. But international officials are loath to work with coalition forces lest they be seen as supporting a war effort they have loudly condemned. Meanwhile, coalition leaders appear to be in no hurry to turn over aid distribution, which plays a crucial role in their public-relations campaign.

Yet another turf battle may be brewing 7,000 miles away in Washington. Agence France-Presse reports that Secretary of State Colin Powell has sent a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reminding him of the State Department's traditional oversight of post-war relief efforts. Some aid groups reportedly fear the Pentagon will try to maintain control of the process in an effort to win goodwill within Iraq.

"The Department of Defense's efforts to marginalize the State Department and force nongovernmental organizations to operate under DoD jurisdiction complicates our ability to help the Iraqi people and multiplies the dangers faced by relief workers in the field," said Mary McClymont, president of InterAction, an umbrella organization for more than 160 U.S.-based relief groups.

For now, though, such worries are necessarily on the back burner. Aid distribution, after all, won't begin in earnest until the war is won. For millions of Iraqis, that will be the greatest relief of all.

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