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U.N. warns of Iraq food crisis

By Al Goodman
CNN Madrid Bureau Chief

A girl waits with her mother for food to be distributed in an image released by the U.S. military.
A girl waits with her mother for food to be distributed in an image released by the U.S. military.

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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- The war in Iraq could create a humanitarian crisis as homes run out of food, the United Nations has warned.

"Time is absolutely critical. According to the (U.N.) World Food Program, there's food until possibly the beginning of May. If there's no more food, we'll have a major problem," said Carel de Rooy, chief representative in Iraq for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

De Rooy, who left Baghdad for Jordan two days before the war began, added that the looming food crisis would only worsen Iraq's pre-war difficulties, which included a quarter of babies being born underweight and a quarter of children under age 5 suffering from malnutrition.

"We are very concerned," said De Rooy, who spoke at a news conference at UNICEF headquarters in Madrid before granting an exclusive interview to CNN.

"As you have seen on the television screens, many children have died and each child that dies is a tragedy within the family," De Rooy told CNN.

"But even worse are the children you don't see dying on the television screen, children who die of malnutrition, diarrhea and acute respiratory infections," said De Rooy, a Dutch national and veteran UNICEF official who has been posted in Iraq since June 2001.

He said the United States, Britain and other coalition partners, including Spain, "have a clear responsibility for the humanitarian effects of this war."

Humanitarian relief professionals should be distributing the supplies, he added, not the military.

"I don't think the military is trained to give humanitarian aid. That's not their job," De Rooy said.

UNICEF is trying to raise $166 million for its Iraqi relief effort, and De Rooy met later Wednesday with Spanish officials to solicit funds for the campaign. UNICEF is also requesting individual donations.

No predictions

He said it would cost $20 per child to restore a semblance of normality to their lives. UNICEF says half of Iraq's population of 24.5 million is under the age of 18.

UNICEF still has a few hundred Iraqi nationals working on aid inside Iraq, but De Rooy said he has been out of contact with them since last weekend, when the phone lines were damaged.

"We don't know what we'll find in Iraq" when UNICEF is allowed back in to the country, he said. The agency is massing aid across the border in Kuwait.

De Rooy declined to predict when the coalition would permit UNICEF and other non-military humanitarian assistance to flow into Iraq.

UNICEF food and medical assistance is still reaching children in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq where logistics have made it possible, he said.

He could not predict how many children might die from the war. UNICEF calculates that children have had severe difficulties in Iraq since 1985 because of insufficient Iraqi government funding for their needs.

Before the war started, he said, a quarter of Iraq's children were working instead of attending school.

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