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Open borders to Iraqis - Amnesty

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Refugees pour into Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq. CNN's Jane Arraf reports (March 19)
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- A leading human rights group has called on Iraq's neighbors to open their borders to admit fleeing Iraqi civilians as aid agencies prepare for the impact of war.

"The United Nations has estimated that there will then be about two million refugees," Amnesty International's Kamal Samari told CNN on Wednesday. "It is their right to flee the conflict and it is the obligation of the neighboring countries to offer protection."

Meanwhile, the United Nations said war would trigger a major humanitarian disaster in a country already crippled by more than a decade of sanctions.

In the short term, food would be urgently needed to feed about 10 million people, while Iraq could face, in the worst-case scenario, widespread starvation and epidemics, said the U.N.'s aid official in charge of Iraq, Ramiro Lopez da Silva.

Aid agencies are preparing contingencies to cope with an exodus and are ready to spring into action once they are called upon to assist. But the U.N. has made it clear that it will not operate under the auspices of "military governor in Baghdad," said Samari.

British aid agency Oxfam said earlier this week it would not work under any U.S.-run postwar government. The United Nations must enter Iraq quickly after hostilities cease to co-ordinate humanitarian and reconstruction work so as not to place their workers in danger and compromise their impartiality, the agency said.

The U.S. military has said frontline troops would carry food rations to hand out to hungry civilians, but humanitarian workers say soldiers and aid do not mix.

According to UK-based Care International, if military action occurs 10 million people will need food immediately, 39 percent of the population will have no clean water while five million would lack access to health care.

"We are extremely worried that vital infrastructure could be damaged by the massive bombing campaign," said Kaye Stearman of Care International. "We're fearful of a humanitarian catastrophe. The water supplies is dependent on the electricity."

"If that is damaged then we'll have a repeat of the last Gulf War when the water and sewage system collapses, spreading sewage over the streets. That caused disease and many more people died because of that than the bombing. And people are still suffering."

Stearman said that there was unlikely to be an exodus as the "Iraqi people are malnourished and have no resources left. Many have sold what little resources they have and have decided to stock up for a stay in the city."

None of the humanitarian aid agencies could place a figure on how much they had set aside for war relief but could launch appeals once it becomes clear what damage has been done.

Relief agencies are stockpiling food and emergency supplies, such as tents and medicines, in countries around Iraq and are in discussions with all sides about access to civilians.

Sixty percent of Iraqis depend entirely on food rations imported under the U.N.'s oil-for-food programs, and household supplies could run out within weeks if distributions stop.

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