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Iraq 'chaos' hinders aid, groups say

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A girl reaches out to passing vehicles for handouts in the town of Umm Qasr, southern Iraq.

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For many humanitarian groups, getting food, water and medical supplies into Iraq is proving difficult. CNN's Casey Wian reports (April 10)
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- With the Iraqi regime crumbling in major cities and small villages, international aid agencies urgently pleaded Wednesday for access and security amid a critical medical and humanitarian situation.

While many groups acknowledged coalition forces had cleared the way for assistance to reach the Iraqi people, they also expressed fear the ensuing chaos and power vacuum would endanger their workers and halt their efforts.

UNICEF said "a residue of fear and chaos" had significantly hampered early attempts to reach Iraqi women and children.

The International Committee of the Red Cross resume operations in Baghdad Thursday, one day after they briefly suspending work due to "chaos" in the Iraqi capital.

In an interview with CNN's Daryn Kagan, ICRC spokesman Roland Huguenin-Benjamin said he was "distressed and puzzled" by the "widespread attacks and looting going on" in the city.

"The hospitals themselves have come under attack for the purpose of looting," Huguenin-Benjamin said. "There are lots of people carrying weapons and they make it very difficult for civilians in need of medical care to actually reach the hospitals."

Huguenin-Benjamin said he is concerned that potential patients will not be able to get to hospitals for receive treatment "unless some sort of security can be re-established in the city."

The ICRC said ground fire casualties could not be evacuated from the battlefield to hospitals in Baghdad because U.S. and Iraqi forces were not letting ambulances through.

Widespread lawlessness may hinder efforts of Human Rights Watch, and others like it, to hold the Iraqi government accountable for possible human rights violations, the ICRC said.

It said residents who have ransacked government buildings have in some cases removed important documents that could be used as evidence.

Water and power critical

In emphasizing their need to reach the Iraqi people, the aid groups also made clear how dire situation is now for the population.

The World Health Organization said electricity supplies in Baghdad are erratic and standby generators are overworked to the point of collapse.

It said Baghdad lacks a ready supply of clean, safe water, making surgery "more of a threat than a solution."

When the power goes out, "the water pumps stop, obviously -- everything stops," said Barbara Al Badri, water and sanitation coordinator for the aid group CARE.

A neglected sewer system and Iraq's 4-year-old drought have led to the poor quality of water throughout the country, CARE said.

Only one of 13 sewage treatment plants in central and southern Iraq has been operational since 1991, it said. As a result, 500,000 tons of raw sewage are discharged into water sources each day, it said.

Low water levels mean the rivers are less able to cope with the discharge of gray water and are more polluted, CARE said, and water treatment facilities are struggling to render the water drinkable.

CARE staff members are staying in Baghdad to distribute clean drinking water to tens of thousands of people in the city of 5 million residents and helping medical staff in the hospitals, the group said in a statement.

Hospitals struggling

The main surgical hospitals in Baghdad now rely mostly on their backup generators for electric power, the ICRC said Tuesday.

The ICRC said Baghdad's 650-bed Medical City hospital complex has neither water nor power, and just six of 27 operating rooms are usable.

The U.N. Population Fund made a special plea for pregnant women, saying they are in particular danger as hospitals deal with war casualties and low medical supplies.

Southeast of Baghdad, coalition forces are building a 500-bed hospital to treat front-line injuries and civilian patients, reported CNN Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who is embedded with the U.S. Navy's "Devil Docs" field unit. The ad-hoc facility will be open in a few days.

Coalition military surgical companies in the area southeast of the capital have treated 150 patients over the past several days, about 80 percent of them Iraqi, Gupta said.

The WHO said it is flying in 50 surgical kits, each one containing sufficient anesthetics, surgical equipment and medical disposables like bandages and syringes for 100 surgeries and several days of post-operative care.

"WHO and its partners in the health sector again remind of the urgent need for negotiated access to the civilian population of Iraq," the group said.

"We will move back into as much of the country as we can, as soon as it is safe to do so.

"International law does not permit armed troops to leave civilians to the mercy of bandits and looters."


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