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US Faulted for Lagging Mideast Relief Effort

Palestinian refugees in Jordan, with no place to go, pose volatile problem for King Hussein

CONTRASTED with its quick and concerted action against Iraq's aggression on Aug. 2, the United States has been slow to help refugees who have poured into Jordan for the past six weeks. Washington's aid is short-term and entangled in red tape, say American and international relief workers. They fault government policy planners for a measured approach toward a problem of mammoth proportions. The US has approved $28 million for the refugees, the bulk of it ``in-kind'' assistance rather than direct financial transfers.

After initially sending water jugs, tents, and some food, US officials approved the delivery of $13 million in foodstuffs - rice, flour, and vegetable oil. Three weeks after the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) began purchasing the foodstuffs from American commodity suppliers, lack of coordination between officials from the USDA, shipping brokers, suppliers, international relief organizations, and even the government of Jordan is apparent. There is disagreement regarding the date of departure for the cargo, just where it will go, and when it will arrive. It may be used to replenish stocks already doled out from any number of international relief groups.

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Jordan has provided foodstuffs for the refugees from its own stockpiles. US officials admit they have not determined Jordan's immediate needs.

Arnold Bromberg, in export operations at the USDA Kansas City Commodity Office, was charged with filling a 20,000-ton rice order for the government. ``It's a specific request for export to Jordan that we are filling,'' he says, unsure of the ship, line, or date of departure. Maritime agents say that the food will not be at the docks until Sept. 30, 23 days after Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter announced that the US would purchase the foodstuffs for refugees stranded in Jordan. The vessels loaded with food should reach Jordan by Nov. 8, say shipping agents.

The transfer's timing disturbs at least one US firm. After Aug. 2, New Jersey-based Westway Merkuria Corporation was eager to unload 27,000 tons of rice, originally ordered by Baghdad but blocked by US officials at a Louisiana port when Iraq invaded Kuwait. ``Our ship could have sailed immediately [as soon as the USDA order was issued] and arrived within 24 days,'' says a lawyer for Westway Merkuria.

The US government wanted no part of the cargo, despite pleas from lawyers, lobbyists, and even Jordan's ambassador to Washington.

Meanwhile, a US Embassy ``situation report'' issued in Amman reports that C-5 cargo planes were to deliver tents and blankets to Jordan. The report states that the US government ``is not expecting to pay for transport of the tents to the transit camps. It is essential that this point be understood before the tents arrive in Jordan.'' The report further ``regrets that onward mission requirements preclude the use of these aircraft for passenger transport.''

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs, protests the limitations of US assistance. Referring to C-5 cargo transports that flew to Jordan from Islamabad, Pakistan, and departed Jordan empty, he asks for US help ``to the maximum feasible extent.'' Senator Kennedy says that US Air Force planes and other government, military, and charter flights that are returning empty after delivering cargo ``should arrange emergency stopovers to move refugees fleeing the crisis.''

A veteran of other US relief operations says the chaotic American effort is typical of quickly mobilized relief. ``Almost never do you see this many people fleeing an area and setting up camps so quickly,'' says Neal Flieger, staff director for the House Select Committee on Hunger. ``Forty thousand people crossed over to Jordan in one afternoon.''

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A spokesman for the Crown Prince's office in Amman says that while worldwide ``food assistance is insufficient,'' the most pressing need is to dramatically step up flights to repatriate those now languishing in camps. He warns that if the makeshift quarters along the Jordanian-Iraqi border are not systematically emptied, the situation ``will simply become out of control.''

``Out of control'' prospects mean political liability for Jordan. Up to 800,000 more refugees are poised to enter from Iraq, several hundred thousand of whom are Palestinian. The prospect of Jordanian camps swelling further is a frightening scenario, say observers. Jordan's population already is 60 percent Palestinian. The new component will only add to political instability for the government of Hashemite King Hussein.

``The big difference between the Palestinians and all the other refugees is that there aren't going to be any transport planes coming to pick them up and take them home. The Palestinians have no home, which means they'll stay right there in Jordan,'' says Mr. Flieger.

Others observe that a diffused US and international response to the refugee problem could result in an explosive situation for Jordan that needs no war for ignition.

Since the early August days of migration, Flieger says, there has been little communication and no established procedure. But he emphasizes that the disaster relief organizations operating on the ground in Jordan are doing ``an excellent job.''

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