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U.S. commits $200 million for food aid to Iraq

Enough to feed population for a month

From Elise Labott

An Iraqi girl waits at a food distribution center in Baghdad Thursday.
An Iraqi girl waits at a food distribution center in Baghdad Thursday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States has committed another $200 million to feed the Iraqi people and said the United Nations would have a major role in delivering humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people.

The funding was announced by USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios, who said the money will be given to the World Food Program to purchase 324,000 tons of food locally, rather than in the United States and send it to the region, to speed up delivery.

"There are going to be immediate food needs in the region and the best way to move food very quickly is to give cash to WFP to buy within the countries in the region," Natsios said, noting that the money will buy enough food to feed 23 million people for about a month. The population of Iraq is approximately 23 million.

He added that there is enough food in the pipeline to feed Iraqis for about four months, until the U.N. oil-for-food program is fully operational again, this time under U.N. control instead of Iraqi.

USAID also committed $20 million in grants to various international nongovernment organizations.

The aid is in addition to the some $530 million the United States has already committed to humanitarian relief in Iraq, bringing the total to about $730 million. The United States has also allocated $1.7 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq after the war.

Natsios said the first member of the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) went to the Iraqi town of Basra to assess the condition of the airport. The rest of the more than 60-member team is either in Kuwait or Umm Qasr, where they are working with Australian and British officials to examine port facilities to facilitate relief efforts.

One problem holding up delivery of some of the food aid is that the port at Umm Qasr cannot accommodate larger Australian ships delivering aid and will need to be dredged, a process that Natsios said could be completed "in a matter of days."

"The humanitarian response mechanism for the U.S. government is now ramping up to a much higher level of readiness," Natsios said.

Aid officials: No humanitarian crisis yet

U.S., British and Australian officials who briefed reporters said that while there are "pockets" of humanitarian need in Iraq, it is not yet a humanitarian crisis and there have been few refugees.

Arthur E. Dewey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said that the United Nations will have a major role in the humanitarian efforts because they have the expertise, have worked in Iraq before and will attract donors to the efforts.

"U.S. humanitarian action supports the U.N. plan," Dewey said. "We consider the U.N. and other international agency operations as the center of gravity for all humanitarian action with respect to Iraq."

Dewey said the structure would be similar to Afghanistan, where the United Nations had a major role in helping rebuild the country.

A senior U.S. official said Wednesday said the humanitarian effort would likely be "put under U.N. auspices" once the bombing ends and that the Bush administration could introduce a resolution to the U.N. Security Council calling on Secretary-General Kofi Annan to appoint a U.N. humanitarian coordinator.

"They are the horsepower of this operation," the official said.

Humanitarian groups and nongovernment organizations have opposed military control over relief efforts, claiming their employees security could be compromised if they appeared to be working for the U.S. military.

Recent reports also cite a rift between the State Department and Pentagon over control of the humanitarian relief efforts, and indicate the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction, led by Jay Garner, has tried to take authority over delivery of aid.

Natsios maintained USAID's DART teams work independently of the U.S. military.

"There have been problems. ... I think most of them have been dealt with at this point," Natsios said. "... We're in the middle of a war, and our teams require security. We don't have our own security. And so we have relied on the American military for security. ... But the U.S. military does not direct our relief operations," he said.

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