While Iraq has about the same population as Afghanistan (26 million), experts say its people may be more vulnerable to the hardships of war. Many more are concentrated in urban areas and therefore less used to surviving in a rough environment. They may have had access to modern water, sewer, and power facilities, but those systems already are in bad shape across much of the country. Some 500,000 tons of raw sewage flow into water sources daily, according to the aid group CARE International, and electricity is often off.
According to the UN World Food Program, at least 40 percent of Iraq's population (some sources put it as high as 60 percent) relies on government rations, a supply of such basics as flour, sugar, and rice. Since the Gulf War the number of children suffering chronic malnutrition has grown from 18.7 percent to 30 percent.
Having gone through two wars (the Iran-Iraq War, followed by the Gulf War), UN sanctions, and years of mistreatment under a dictatorial regime, "the Iraqi people now don't have the resources to withstand an additional crisis," says Margaret Hassan, CARE International's director for Iraq.
In anticipation of such needs, Oxfam International and other organizations are positioning staff and equipment in the region. UN agencies that focus on children, refugees, and others who need help are storing food, blankets, and other material in Iran and other neighboring countries.
Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam's executive director, worries that, in the event of war, airstrikes will target Iraqi power stations.
"If that happened, the Iraqi water and sanitation system, which depends on electricity and which is already in a parlous state, would collapse, leaving millions of people vulnerable to diseases and epidemics," he says.
For its part, the Bush administration lays most of the blame for Iraqis' suffering at the feet of Saddam Hussein. "To craft tragedy, the regime places civilians close to military equipment, facilities, and troops, which are legitimate targets in an armed conflict," says the White House in a recent report titled "Apparatus of Lies: Saddam's Disinformation and Propaganda 1990-2003."