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Aid agencies fear refugee exodus

Iraqi Kurdish families flee Irbil in northern Iraq.

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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) -- The British and U.S. military are planning for a "worst case scenario" of two million civilians being displaced by a war in Iraq.

Hundreds of thousands of people have already crossed borders into Syria and Jordan.

In the biggest operation of its kind since World War II, the British armed forces say they expect to deal with humanitarian problems for several days before U.N. and other aid agencies arrive.

A total of 200,000 food packs have already been loaded onto U.S. vehicles in Kuwait, and 30,000 onto British trucks.

They will be taken inside Iraq by road behind front-line troops. There are fears that if dropped from the air they could land in minefields.

In the immediate aftermath of an invasion of Iraq, the military would have responsibility for feeding some 25 million people.

Likely areas for food distribution have already been identified -- mainly be in urban areas, as up to 75 percent of Iraq's population lives in cities and towns.

Dozens of potential sites for civilians displaced by fighting have also been earmarked close to road and rail networks.

Analysts suggest between 1 percent and 10 percent -- up to two million -- people across Iraq could be displaced in the war.

U.S. Relief Organization Mercy Corps said it was preparing for a severe refugee crisis.

In an interview Wednesday on CNN's American Morning, Cassandra Nelson said her agency feared three million would be displaced within Iraq, and a further 600,000 would leave the country.

"Iraq has a very urban based population. In terms of fighting we anticipate that Baghdad will have prolonged fighting so we'll see a large flow of refugees and internally displaced people from there."

Nelson also said if central and southern Iraq was hit hard during a military campaign, two million displaced people were likely to migrate towards the borders of Kuwait, Jordan, and Iran.

According to Nelson, one of Mercy Corps' biggest concerns is that Saddam Hussein will use chemical and biological weapons on his own people.

"If he unleashes those weapons, and he infects his own population, the international community, Mercy Corps is not prepared to deal with that kind of a crisis," said Nelson.

David Bull, of UNICEF, told CNN the organization was trying to raise $140 million to deal with the crisis.

"We have been pre-positioning supplies for some weeks. Many thousands of tonnes of supplies are already in place."

Bull said children and young people were most at risk. "Half the population of Iraq is under 18. There are serious problems with diseases like diarrhea, and these children are extremely vulnerable," he said.

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