Monday, April 07, 2003

It's ferkin' cold here today, and snowing pretty hard. Even inside our apartment, I'm wearing a hat and long johns. Anyway, having finished the third and final draft of my translation of Anna Zonová's short story "The Mailbox," I can try to dig myself out of the hole I'm in on my coverage of the New York Times' coverage of the humanitarian relief effort in Iraq.

Stepping back in time to Tuesday, April 1: Not one of the NYT's front-page stories makes any mention of aid for Iraq. In the lead story of the Nation at War section, though, "Bush Defends the Progress of the War," by Adam Nagourney and David E. Sanger, the jump on page B3 quotes President Bush as telling Coast Guard employees in the port of Philadelphia: "In 11 days, we have seized key bridges, opened a northern front, nearly achieved complete air superiority, and have delivered tons of humanitarian aid."

At the time of this speech, Bush's statement was stretching the truth. The British ship Sir Galahad, containing the first shipment of food and medical supplies for Iraqis, was only able to dock on March 28, as noted below in various articles (no longer accessible without paying, I realize; that's the downside of linking to the New York Times). Which means that while, technically, yes, the aid had been "delivered," it had yet to reach the people it was intended to help.

Then there was a page B1 story, filed from Umm Qasr by Jane Perlez, "Pentagon and State Department in Tug-of-War Over Aid Disbursal" (online titled "A Tug of War Over Aid Disbursal"), that is chock-full of information about the progress of the aid effort. It's worth quoting in its entirety:

"People in southern Iraq waited today for the assistance promised by the Bush administration while debate simmered over the Pentagon's plans to oversee the distribution of the aid, a task that has traditionally been controlled by civilians.

"Aid organizations, poised to help in the delivery of emergency supplies, said they would be reluctant to take part if their work was associated with the American military.

"Moreover, State Department and aid agency officials said that distribution of aid under the direction of the military would amplify the perception that the American presence was an occupation.

"In an unusual letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asserted that he wanted to retain control of the assistance programs for Iraq.

"One of the motivations behind the letter, according to State Department officials, was the knowledge that foreign governments and international aid agencies would be reluctant to help in Iraq if the American military was involved.

"Mr. Powell was also eager to maintain the present situation in which emergency teams of the United States Agency for International Development report to Andrew Natsios, the head of the agency, who in turn reports to Mr. Powell. These teams, known as disaster assistance response teams, direct the efforts in the field of nongovernmental aid agencies.

"Almost 50 members of these disaster assistance response teams are waiting in Kuwait City to go to Iraq to direct the delivery of emergency water, food and other supplies. They include doctors, nutritional experts and water treatment engineers.

"But a month ago, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, a retired Army officer who is the head of the Bush administration's new reconstruction and humanitarian assistance office for Iraq, claimed responsibility for the aid programs, A.I.D. officials said. General Garner, who is also in Kuwait City, reports to the war commander, Gen. Tommy R. Franks.

" 'Our implementing partners do not want to work with the military,' an A.I.D. official said. He was referring to major nongovernmental agencies, including Oxfam-America and Catholic Relief Services. 'We've said A.I.D. would be interested in coordination, not subordination,' to the military, he added.

"A military-led relief effort would 'jeopardize all burden-sharing by U.N. agencies and other governments,' said George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee. "It would also compromise the independence and safety of humanitarian workers around the world.'

"Other aid agencies said that the military, already pressed to supply food to its own troops on the battlefield, would be unable to distribute food effectively to Iraqi civilians. They pointed to the chaotic distribution in the southern town of Safwan where Iraqi men shoved needy women out of the way to grab food boxes as coalition forces looked on.

" 'Some American units are running low on food because they can't get supplies to them,' said Kenneth H. Bacon, president of Refugees International. 'So how can they distribute food to the whole country?'

"Mr. Bacon and the leaders of 13 other major American aid agencies sent a letter to President Bush last week urging him to place the humanitarian effort in Iraq under the auspices of the United Nations.

"In doing so, they said, Mr. Bush would be living up to his own pledge made in the Azores last month that the United Nations would play a key role in the aid programs in Iraq. Further, they said, the World Food Program and Unicef, the United Nations program for children, had worked in Iraq for years and the United States should capitalize on their long experience.

"Two Unicef convoys tried to get into Iraq today. The one from the north, with medicine and water purification equipment, was stopped by Turkish border guards. In the south, 5 out of perhaps 10 water tanker trucks were allowed past the border; 3 made it to Umm Qasr. One of the other two turned around when the driver became anxious; a second ended up in a ditch.

"The Umm Qasr docks, the main entry point for assistance to Iraq, remained idle today, more than a week after coalition forces declared the facility secure. Several dozen Iraqi dock workers have been employed in recent days after interviews by a team of British soldiers. But so far the workers have been relegated to simple loading tasks at warehouses. The British said they had not yet found any Iraqis to take management positions at the docks.

"One of the reasons for the lack of activity at the docks, according to American officials, was the refusal of the Office of the United Nations Security Coordinator in New York to make a security assessment of the port. Ships loaded with grain from the United Nations World Food Program cannot be unloaded until the port is declared secure.

"Teams of United Nations security experts have been waiting for days at the Kuwait border to cross into Iraq to make the assessment but are yet to receive a go-ahead. American officials said they believed that the United Nations was stalling on the safety issue for political reasons.

"As a result of the lack of a security clearance a vessel carrying about 100,000 tons of Australian wheat — a gift from the Australian government to the World Food Program — remained stuck in the Persian Gulf waiting to dock.

"In an effort to spur the United Nations on and to demonstrate that the port was safe, two A.I.D. workers were sent to the port today to set up a small headquarters there. They had enough equipment and supplies to stay overnight at the port, where British army officers are working in the derelict offices of the Iraqi port directors who fled.

"For the moment, people in Umm Qasr, and in the towns further north to Basra, appeared to have enough food. Everywhere, water was in short supply. In embattled Basra, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that their workers had begun to restore three generators on the water treatment plant in the town in an effort to get the city's water capacity above 50 percent.

"But American aid officials said that stocks of food, distributed before the war, will begin to run out in many Iraqi households by the end of April.

"By then, they said, they will have to be able to revive the distribution systems for the 450,000 tons of food that needs to be distributed every month to Iraqis under a revived version of the oil-for-food program. The aid workers stress that this is four times the amount of food distributed each month in Afghanistan.

"The critical shortage of water was evident in Umm Qasr, even though a major new water pipeline from Kuwait into the town opened today for the first time. 'The water comes in tankers but there are always fights over it,' said Murtartha Taleb Kadem, one of the dock workers.

"It is much more difficult to get water now than before the war, he said. Then, water was available for two hours in the morning, and two hours in the evening. He would buy water for drinking.

"In the section of the town near the port this morning, the obsession with water was clear. Young boys pushed trolleys along the road with empty containers to fill up from a tanker. Men formed a scrum around the back of a truck packed with boxes of mineral water bottles. Young children carried as many bottles as they could, and several women carried bottles under their long black robes."

If you'd rather just read a summary of the information above, the Overview on page B1 of the same issue -- "Battles in Central Iraq, Defiance in Baghdad and Quarrels in Washington" -- conveniently reports:

"DISPUTE OVER AID The docks at the port of Umm Qasr in southern Iraq remained idle as a dispute over how to administer aid unfolded in Washington. The Pentagon insists on overseeing distribution of the food, water and medicine that is scheduled to come into Iraq. But Secretary of State Powell wants to keep the aid in civilian hands, fearing that any link with the military forces in Iraq would aggravate the perception that the American presence represented a forcible occupation of the country. Mr. Powell also argued that foreign governments and international aid organizations would be wary about lending a hand if the military was involved. The leaders of 14 major American aid agencies have urged President Bush to put the United Nations in charge of the relief effort. As the struggle for control continued, the aid remained on the docks."