Acknowledging their timing couldn't be worse, leaders of two of the largest religious international relief organizations are pressing the U.S. government for an additional $350 million in emergency food aid to head off famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The leaders of Catholic Relief Services and Lutheran World Relief, both based in Baltimore, along with the president of Africare, say they're concerned that war with Iraq would divert precious attention and aid dollars from the crisis in East Africa, where an estimated 14 million are in danger of starving.

The three returned last weekend from a trip to the region, where they said conditions were worse than expected.

"Ethiopia is holding the line against full-fledged famine, but it is a precarious line," said Lutheran World Relief President Kathryn F. Wolford said at a Washington news conference Tuesday. "Now the challenge is to keep the supply lines going."

Wolford said she was haunted by a woman who invited the group into her tiny home of sticks and mud, holding a 3-year-old child so malnourished that skin hung off his haunches as if he were an old man. "If food aid doesn't come by the end of this month, I can guarantee you that will be another one of the statistics," Wolford said of the boy.

The leaders said that without further help, the crisis in Ethiopia and Eritrea could eclipse the Ethiopian famine of 1984-1985, which received widespread attention and an outpouring of millions of dollars. About 1 million people died.

The prevalence of AIDS has exacerbated the latest crisis, incapacitating many adults who otherwise would be gathering food and sowing crops.

Wolford, Africare President Julius E. Coles and Kenneth F. Hackett, executive director of Catholic Relief Services, said that while attention and money are likely to flow toward Iraq in the coming months, delaying aid to Africa will only make that crisis more expensive in the long run.

"It will be pennywise and pound-foolish not to send support today," Wolford said.

Hackett acknowledged that the timing of the group's request on the eve of an expected war with Iraq was unfortunate, but he lauded the government for

doing a "tremendous amount" already to help stave off famine. Since a group of 15 private agencies called attention to the African crisis in December, an additional $250 million in U.S. aid has improved conditions in southern Africa, where millions more are at risk of starving, he said.

Still, "we're back here to talk to Congress today to say there is not enough food in the pipeline," Hackett said.

The relief leaders said the real problems in Ethiopia and Eritrea stem from lack of development - poor irrigation systems, environmental degradation and deforestation, which impede agricultural production. The United States gives 50 times as much for emergency aid in the region as it does for longer-term development, an imbalance that needs to change, Coles said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development did not return phone calls seeking comment on the request.