The US has launched a public bidding process for humanitarian relief organisations to work in Iraq, as Washington moves closer to a decision on whether to launch a military offensive on Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has stepped up negotiations with UN officials over the return of weapons inspectors, and has taken a major step towards repairing relations with its neighbour Kuwait.
A State Department document, which was issued in late July, calls for 'an open competition for proposals for humanitarian assistance projects in Iraq [south, central or southern] and for Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries'. The call has raised speculation that the US is attempting to set up a relief network for civilians displaced by a possible military campaign. Aid agencies have also expressed worries about becoming involved in an American 'hearts and minds' campaign.
'I find it strange that at this particular moment, the US government is announcing an open competition for proposals for humanitarian assistance projects in Iraq, specifying that it can be in any part of the country,' said Joel Charny, vice-president for policy at Washington-based Refugees International. 'It seems in contradiction to the policy of embargo and limiting assistance to areas controlled by Saddam Hussein.'
The Iraqi leader continued to shore up regional political support in mid August. In a significant conciliatory gesture, Baghdad agreed to the return of Kuwait national archives looted during the Gulf War. Following a meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri in Baghdad on 13 August, UN envoy Richard Foran said: 'The Iraqi officials have been extremely helpful and they have indicated that they would co-operate in every possible way.' However, Iraq had not yet replied to a UN request for unconditional access for its weapons inspectors, he said.
Talk of war reached fever pitch in Washington, despite reports that the US administration was undecided about the feasibility of military action. 'There is a very powerful moral case for regime change,' National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on 15 August. 'History is littered with cases of inaction that led to very grave consequences for the world.' Rice's comments followed news that US and British aircraft had stepped up their bombing campaign in the southern no-fly zone of Iraq, destroying two air defence sites. The previous week coalition planes struck an Iraqi military communications facility. Reports also emerged of heightened activity in the US navy. Danish newspapers reported on 12 August that MaerskSealand had signed a contract with the Pentagon for the maintenance of eight ships expected to play a role in a military offensive.
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