By Suleiman al-Khalidi
AMMAN, April 7 Iraq's humanitarian crisis has worsened, and decades of conflict and deteriorating basic services are reducing people's ability to cope with the hardships they face, a senior U.N. aid official said on Monday.
"There are wider concerns about the longer-term effect of prolonged conflict, and people's coping mechanisms become strained ... this deterioration of basic services is not yet reversed..." Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told Reuters in an interview.
One effect of the "deteriorating humanitarian situation" were the "worrying signs" of acute malnutrition among four to nine percent of children under the age of five, even though malnutrition was still not a general phenomenon, he said.
"When you get these indicators ... these are alarm bells that you need to take some notice of," said Holmes, who is also the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator.
Four million Iraqis do not have enough food, only 40 percent have reliable access to safe drinking water and about one third of the population is cut off from basic health care, he said.
More than 1.26 million Iraqis have left their homes and become internal refugees because of sectarian violence since 2006. The U.N. estimates a further two million have fled Iraq, mainly to Syria and Jordan.
These movements were "tied to the gradual deterioration" of a state food rationing system that has been a lifeline in feeding a population of 28 million. It is now being supplemented by aid from the World Food Programme (WFP), Holmes said.
"We estimate that some four million people in Iraq do not have enough food and the public distribution system is not operating as well as anyone would like it to," he said.
NO END TO REFUGEES' PLIGHT
Holmes said humanitarian needs could only become greater as there was no end in sight to the plight of refugees abroad and internally displaced Iraqis. "The conditions for a large-scale return of people to their original homes are not there."
The drop in violence since last summer when the U.S. military sent in extra troops, and fighters loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr declared a ceasefire, had not reversed the worsening humanitarian crisis, Holmes said.
"Despite the improvement in security in some areas, there are very grave humanitarian problems..." he said.
The U.N. estimates that conflict and violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 have killed 151,000 civilians, created tens of thousands of widows and orphans and cut off 60 percent of the population from at least one essential service.
There can be no hope of a turnaround in conditions until there is progress in reconciling different factions, so that disenfranchised Iraqis can be drawn into the political process and away from insurgency and sectarian violence, Holmes said.
"Some of the fundamental political reconciliation which is needed has not happened, and that is why the situation remains difficult," the top aid official said. (Editing by Tim Pearce)