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Water flowing into southern Iraq; food on the way

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- With the help of the Kuwaiti government, fresh water is flowing into coalition-held areas of southern Iraq, and food is on the way, the American officer in charge of these efforts said today.

Coalition forces are coordinating delivery of water from a pipeline the Kuwait government set up into southern Iraq to the port city of Umm Qasr and other areas further north, Army Col. David Blackledge, commander of 354th Civil Affairs Brigade, said.

Blackledge was speaking from Umm Qasr to reporters in the Pentagon via video hook-up. He said getting potable water to Umm Qasr is "the most significant thing" civil affairs folks have been able to do in that area.

Water is being piped north from Kuwait through a pipeline into Iraq, then tanker-trucked into Umm Qasr and other areas. Having locally hired Iraqi drivers has the added benefit of getting cash flowing into the local economy, stagnated by years under Saddam Hussein's regime.

Before the war, people in Umm Qasr relied on water being trucked south from Basra. Conflict in the region has made that impossible.

Blackledge said his team works closely with U.S. Agency for International Development representatives and other international and nongovernmental organizations to coordinate aid delivery and distribution. He noted the International Committee of the Red Cross made a delivery of medical supplies to Basra today.

The next step will be food, although, the colonel explained, it's not such an immediate concern. "Our assessment of the folks here is that they've got at least six to eight weeks of food stockpiled," Blackledge said.

American officials estimated that as many as 60 percent of Iraqis relied on food distributions made by the government under the auspices of the United Nations-sponsored Oil-for- Food Program. Families and individuals received food rations from neighborhood distribution points in a system that had been lauded by the United Nations as one of the most efficient in the world.

Prior to the war, press reports spoke of indications that Iraqi officials had upped rations so people could stockpile extra food.

Blackledge said his team hopes to re-establish the neighborhood food distribution system already in place. "The local people knew who their food distributor was to go get food, and we want to put that (system) back in place, since there was a functioning system, and then develop it from there," he said.

Food will come from several sources. Officials from the U.N. World Food Program did an initial assessment today and are expected to begin shipping in food aid soon. In the meantime American military and other governmental organizations are working to meet the public's needs. The government of Kuwait has also donated "30 truckloads of food of various types."

The colonel noted he has several members of the Free Iraqi Forces working with his team. These individuals, Iraqi expatriates mostly living in the United States, went through training offered by the United States in Hungary to work as liaisons between coalition military forces and the Iraqi public.

Most FIF troops working for Blackledge are from this area of southern Iraq and have been "invaluable" in helping earn the trust and confidence of the local civilian population, he said.

"(The Free Iraqi Forces) have family (in the area)," Blackledge said. "They know the people and have been really critical in establishing the trust with the local people that we really were here to help them and to identify the people that we needed to work with to get distribution back up and going."

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