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UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- With the U.S. military in charge of American relief operations in Iraq, the United Nations has told its aid workers to stay as far away as possible from U.S. soldiers to preserve the civilian character of U.N. humanitarian operations.
As American forces began distributing water in the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, U.S. aid experts warned that military control of humanitarian aid would jeopardize donations, put workers in danger and inject political motives into the delivery of food and medicine.
The U.N. guidelines, issued late last month and circulated last week, stressed the "operational independence" of U.N. humanitarian action in Iraq, and said aid workers should only contact the military about issues like security, relief convoys and the movements of large amounts of people.
U.N. relief workers should only use soldiers or military vehicles to help deliver aid in "exceptional" circumstances and should avoid publicly socializing with the military, the guidelines say.
"Our intention is to try to run a totally civilian aid operation -- and that's standard procedure," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Friday. "It's always as a last resort that we rely on the military."
InterAction, a coalition of more than 160 U.S.-based relief organizations, said it can't understand why President Bush changed a World War II-era policy that put relief operations in the hands of civilian government agencies like the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The decision "complicates our ability to help the Iraqi people and multiplies the dangers faced by relief workers in the field," InterAction chief executive Mary McClymont said.
Peter Bell, president and chief executive officer of Care USA, one of the largest international humanitarian groups, said "independence and impartiality" are essential to relief efforts.
Bell said he was concerned military forces could use the aid operations politically to reward certain groups over others. Putting the military in charge would also jeopardize support from international donors who oppose the war, said InterAction spokesman Sid Balman Jr.
The U.N. and American relief groups started lobbying the administration in December to put civilians with expertise in charge of the Iraq humanitarian effort.
But Bush authorized the creation of an Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq in the Pentagon under a team of recently retired generals.
After lobbying Congress, relief groups won a provision in separate war bills passed Thursday that say relief and reconstruction funds must be channeled through the traditional civilian government departments, Bell and Balman said.
If this provision survives the conference committee that will decide the final version of the bill, it would be "very good news," said Bell.
A senior U.S. official said the government assumes the U.N. and relief groups will lead aid efforts, with the military stepping in in an emergency if workers can't get to a particular area.
In an indication of the sensitivity of the military issue, the U.N. guidelines single out dealings with U.S. Disaster Assistance and Response Teams, known as DART teams, who would be operating under U.S. military auspices in Iraq.
"Too close an affiliation with the teams may undermine the perception of the U.N.'s neutrality and impartiality. Therefore U.N. agencies should establish a principled yet pragmatic relationship with the DART teams," the guidelines say.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)