Humanitarian Aid to Iraq Proves One of War's Biggest Obstacles ; Bush and Blair Thursday Called for the UN to Immediately Resume Its Oil-for-Food Program

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The crowds in the captured Iraqi port town of Umm Qasr mobbed the two British water tanker trucks. "Not enough, please! We need a good water supply," one man told British officers.

The chaotic scene Wednesday, the same day crowds of Iraqis swarmed food-laden Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society trucks in a nearby town, has aid workers worried about obstacles facing what is being billed as the largest humanitarian relief operation in history.

As the US, the United Nations and independent organizations gear up to provide relief, aid workers are growing increasingly frustrated by their inability to reach Iraqi civilians who might need help.

At the same time, aid workers in the region and governments that opposed the war are voicing fears that Washington is seeking to control the assistance program to serve its political aim of appearing as a 'liberator' of Iraq.

Nobody is thought to be in immediate danger of starving in Iraq. The Iraqi government recently authorized double rations, which should see most citizens through until the end of April. But with 60 percent of the population dependent entirely on rations distributed under the UN "Oil for Food" program, suspended since the outbreak of hostilities, the prospect of a protracted war is heightening fears of a disaster.

The UN escrow account, holding money to be spent on food that was earned by Iraqi oil exports, holds $8 billion, but France and Russia are refusing to give Washington control of those funds, and resisting any resumption of the oil-for-food program that could be construed as a UN endorsement of the war.

Under the Geneva Conventions, Russia and France argue, the occupying force is responsible for providing humanitarian goods to sustain the population.

Thursday, meeting in Camp David, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair called on the UN to immediately resume the oil- for-food program.

"This urgent humanitarian issue must not be politicized. The Security Council should give Secretary-General Kofi Annan the authority to start getting food supplies to those most in need of assistance," Bush said after meeting with his closest ally.

Though advance columns of US troops are only 50 miles from Baghdad, no humanitarian workers have got further than Umm Qasr, 300 miles to the rear, on the Kuwaiti border.

"We don't operate in a combat environment," says Donald Tighe, spokesman for USAID's Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) in Kuwait, whose experts will spearhead relief efforts. "We have begun the assessment process in areas declared secure by the military," so far limited to Umm Qasr.

With fighting still under way in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, and irregular Iraqi forces roaming the countryside along the roads to Baghdad, only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been able to function. Iraqi ICRC employees this week repaired a water pumping station in Basra.

Danger has also held up the arrival of hundreds of thousands of tons of food that are sitting in warehouses in Gulf countries. …