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U.S., aid agencies ready to assist impoverished Iraqis

WASHINGTON -- United States and international relief workers are poised to enter the Umm Qasr port to address acute shortages of public drinking water and unsafe sanitary conditions in southern Iraq, particularly in the city of Basra to the northwest.

Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, provided this assessment in a State Department briefing here today.

Food will be shipped in, as well, he said, although that's not the primary concern at the moment for hundreds of thousands of southern Iraqis who've lived with a deteriorating infrastructure over the past decade.

"Child mortality rates for Iraq are not a function of an absence of food - the food distribution system provides enough food for the population," Natsios explained. The Iraqi government, he noted, has been providing extra food rations to the population.

The current suffering of the southern Iraqi people is caused by "a deliberate decision by the [Hussein] regime not to repair the water system or replace old equipment with new equipment," he pointed out.

Consequently, many Iraqis in the affected region "are basically drinking untreated sewer water in their homes and have been for some years," Natsios declared. Wealthy Iraqis, he noted, drink bottled water imported from Jordan.

"In fact, we have a large contract that is about to be granted to bring in bottled water for the whole population," he said, while Iraqi water and sanitation systems are repaired after the war.

Seventy percent of Iraq's 26 million people live in urban areas, Natsios pointed out. Basra, for example, is Iraq's second largest city after the capital of Baghdad.

"This is not a rural population, primarily," he continued, "and so public services like sewer and water systems make a great deal of difference."

Bottled water, generators, other equipment, food and more supplies will flow into southern Iraq, Natsios said, as soon as U.S. and coalition military say it's safe for aid ships to dock and unload at Umm Qasr.

Some ships, he said, are already loaded, with additional supplies and foodstuffs at the ready in warehouses in the region.

Natsios noted the United States, the largest donor of assistance to Iraq, has made a commitment of 610,000 tons of food, plus other supplies and equipment.

Other countries, he noted, like Australia, Japan and aid agencies like the U.N. World Food Program and the International Red Cross have pledged hundreds more tons of food and supplies for Iraq.

USAID has received 20 to 30 nongovernmental agency grants for Iraq humanitarian relief, Natsios remarked, noting that $30 million in grant proposals will be awarded next week. President Bush's wartime supplemental budget request submitted to Congress today earmarks about $2.4 billion for Iraqi relief and reconstruction, he noted.

Natsios said U.S. and coalition intelligence sources have already provided USAID with lists of anticipated needs for beleaguered Iraqis.

The Kurds in northern Iraq seemingly need less aid, Natsios noted, because they've used their agricultural system to establish a strong market economy.

The most severe poverty within Iraq "is in the south in the Shia areas along the border with Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia," he pointed out, noting that region was impoverished even before the current war.

"At this point," Natsios added, "we don't see any large-scale refugee movements or internally displaced people, yet."

However, "Saddam Hussein has a history of attacking his own people," he pointed out, noting the Iraqi dictator attacked the Kurds with chemical and biological weapons in 1988 and assaulted the Shias after the 1991 Gulf War.

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