WASHINGTON - As the United States amasses troops, tanks and aircraft around Iraq in preparation for an invasion, aid agencies and relief personnel are preparing to keep hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians fed and sheltered in case of war.
With less publicity than military movements but with growing urgency, the U.S. government has begun shipping everything from 3 million daily food rations to ladders, shelters, blankets, water and medicine to the Middle East to avert a potential humanitarian catastrophe.
A war in Iraq lasting two to three months could send nearly 1.5 million refugees streaming toward Iraq's borders with Turkey, Jordan, Iran and Syria, and leave an additional 900,000 people displaced from their homes inside Iraq, the United Nations estimates.
Basic services, strained by 12 years of economic sanctions, could break down, complicating the difficult task of governing postwar Iraq.
With war seemingly inevitable, the White House has begun to publicize U.S. plans for humanitarian aid, partly in an effort to convince international opinion that the war is not aimed at average Iraqis.
Those plans call for a major role for the U.S. military, at least initially, in relief and reconstruction, despite President Bush's campaign pledge not to involve the armed forces in what he called "nation building."
The price tag for the first year could reach $1 billion, a large sum but a fraction of the $60 billion to $90 billion the military effort is expected to cost.
Private aid agencies, which carry out most of the relief work in the field, say the U.S. government got a late start in pre-positioning supplies and has been slow to share information on its plans.
"The military preparations are far advanced of the humanitarian preparations," said Joel Charny, vice president for policy of Washington-based Refugees International. "I would be very surprised if we're ready for the humanitarian consequences" of the war, he said.
Predictions of widespread deprivation when the United States went to war in Afghanistan in October 2001 failed to materialize, largely because of extensive advance planning and smaller-than-expected refugee flows.
"Very few disasters ... have ever come out to be the worst-case scenario," Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told a White House briefing.
Though it is impossible to predict what will happen, "I think we are very well positioned," Natsios said, noting that planning began in September and has included weekly meetings with relief groups.
Natsios' agency has spent $26.5 million to buy and pre-position supplies, and is spending an additional $56 million.
Still, relief experts say the effort to prepare has been hindered by bureaucracy and by governments neighboring Iraq, which do not want to be perceived as accepting that war is inevitable, or to take steps that will attract unwanted refugees.
"We still have a long way to go," said Stephanie Bunker, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Providing relief in Iraq could be trickier than it was in Afghanistan for several reasons.
If Saddam Hussein uses chemical or biological weapons, it would multiply the humanitarian catastrophe and prevent aid workers, who lack the military's chem-bio training and equipment, from reaching affected areas.