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Weakest Iraqis missing food aid

By Suleiman al-Khalidi

Click to enlarge photo

AMMAN (Reuters) - U.N. and other relief agencies have criticised the way food is being distributed under U.S. and British forces' supervision in southern Iraq in which strong Iraqis have grabbed food at the expense of the weak.

Over the past few days, hundreds of Iraqis have been shown on television scrambling near Basra for boxes of food aid, sent from Kuwait, while troops tried to control them.

"We want to see aid delivered to the most needy in a way that has human dignity and we don't think that only the strongest should get aid...This doesn't conform to any standard of human respect," Martin Dawes, a spokesman for the United Nation Childrens Agency (UNICEF), told Reuters on Sunday.

"I have not seen aid that is going to hospitals or a mechanism to ensure the same people don't come back," he added.

U.S. troops, intent on ousting President Saddam Hussein, have been advancing on Baghdad in the centre of the country. But much of the south, including the city of Basra, is not under their control and it is too dangerous for U.N. agencies and non-governmental organisations to enter.

A U.N. spokesman said aid distribution must not be used as a publicity stunt for political gain rather than feeding hungry people.

"This whole notion of soldiers giving aid boxes to people off the back of a truck looks nice for cameras," said David Wimhurst of the UN Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (UNOHCI).

"But the actual scenes that ensued were pretty bad. This creates a semi-riot. You have no way of getting to know where this aid is going to end. It may be sold or simply held by the strongest."

Wimhurst said food distribution must be organised, taken over by impartial civilian aid organisations as soon as possible, and involve local people.

"The best way of doing aid is to involve community elders and especially women. Women traditionally care for households and they know their families' needs," he told Reuters.

"One of the key issues, apart from handing out the aid is to maintain the dignity and humanity of those receiving it," he said.

International aid group Oxfam said distribution by the military made Iraqi civilians targets by Iraqi soldiers.

"The problem is that aid distributed this way can be dangerous," said Alex Renton, citing reports of firing by Iraqi troops on civilians when receiving bread from British soldiers.

Almost all aid agencies have said southern Iraq is still too dangerous for civilian relief teams, but they say the U.N. must take control of humanitarian work when the fighting ends.

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