‘My assessment of the overall level of preparedness of the international community to cope with the humanitarian challenges which may lie ahead in Iraq is that it is limited, and this involves serious risk,’ Short said. ‘I am concerned by optimistic assumptions about how quickly the UN and NGOs [non-government organisations] might be able to do post-conflict work.’

The statement followed the publication on 12 March of a report by the House of Commons international development committee which said international humanitarian plans for post-crisis Iraq were inadequate.

Short said a further £6.5 million ($9.8 million) had recently been approved to help finance Iraq planning work. The Department for International Development (DfID) announced in February an additional £3.5 million ($5.3 million) contribution to support UN humanitarian contingency planning for Iraq. The beneficiaries include the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN World Food Programme, the World Health Organisation, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations Security Co-ordinator (UNSECOORD).

In 2002-03, DFID expect to spends over £8 million ($12 million) in previously agreed programmes, much of it in support of NGOs operating in northern Iraq. DfID is also financing the work of UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross and CARE in Baghdad-controlled Iraq.

Short said that DfID believes that the UN, through the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), should play the leading role in the co-ordination of humanitarian activity, including in the function of the pooling and sharing of information about priority needs. ‘The UN is best able to reassure implementing agencies of the independence of humanitarian decision-making,’ Short said.

Short said that DFID’s stockpile of non-food items, vehicles and equipment is prepared, and additional supplies are being prepared. Some of these stocks are being positioned in Kuwait and elsewhere in the region.

Short said a full-time civil-military humanitarian adviser had been seconded to the Kuwait headquarters of the British 1st Division and that advice is being provided to the UK National Component Headquarters in Qatar. She said her department was discussing the idea of Quick Impact Projects in the period immediately after any conflict. The these are similar to the direct action task forces established by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Short said that a DfID official has been seconded to the (ORHA) in the US Department of Defence. The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence have also seconded staff

Short said humanitarian action was accelerating. ‘But, ultimately, no preparation would be enough to cope with the scale of the worst-case scenarios – 16 million people currently dependent on oil-for-food handouts deprived of their monthly ration for a sustained period, the complete collapse of water and sanitation systems in a largely urban country of 25 million people, and the possible use of chemical and biological weapons on the civilian population,’ she said.

‘It is clear that a UN mandate will be required to provide legal authority for the reconstruction effort, and to make possible the engagement of international financial institutions and the wider international community,’ she said. ‘Efforts are being made to ensure that a suitable mandate is put in place.’