So far, few Iraqis head for the borders
International aid agencies are prepared to process as many as 600,000 refugees.
The last time Iraq went to war, this barren patch of desert in Jordan's empty eastern reaches was swamped by a maelstrom of men, women, and children fleeing for their lives.
Tuesday, row upon row of cream-colored tents again stand ready to shelter refugees from the new war. But the tents are empty, their canvas flapping in the wind. Neither the bombardment of Baghdad nor fierce fighting in southern Iraq has yet frightened Iraqis into fleeing their homes.
Border posts in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia report a similar picture. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says just 14 Iraqi refugees entered Syria on Sunday. But international aid agencies are prepared for a massive exodus of up to 600,000 people.
Brushing sand from the groundsheet in the inflatable white tent that he is making into a clinic here, Takashi Ukai is grateful for the lull that could herald a storm. His work with Cambodian refugees 20 years ago taught him "the necessity for preparation in peacetime for disasters. And this time the influx of refugees was anticipated many months ago," he says.
Some 1.8 million people fled Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, and half of them came to Jordan. This time, Jordan has promised to keep its border open again, and a wave of international aid agencies has swept into the country to help.
A few miles outside Ruwayshid, a dusty and decrepit collection of cinderblock buildings, these agencies are helping the local authorities set up one tent camp that could hold 20,000 people. Another nearby is equipped for 5,000 third-country nationals who have been working in Iraq.
As Dr. Ukai checked his medicine cabinet, workers shielding their faces from the windblown sand were bashing tent pegs into the harsh basalt-covered desert floor. Others were readying a massive steel water tank, fed by a 1,400-foot-deep borehole, while diggers tore trenches in which to lay pipes and electrical cables.
"We are ready to receive refugees immediately," says Douglas Osmond, a UNHCR logistics officer. "We are a little surprised that there aren't any, but it's better to be prepared than unprepared."
Similar camps are being readied in Syria, where the UN World Food Program (WFP) has established food stocks for 20,000 people. But the Syrian border authorities at the Abu Kamal crossing point are showing little sympathy toward those trying to cross over.
"They say the immigration boss is sleeping," says Sabbagh, an Iraqi money changer, his three toddlers taking shelter from the sandstorm that swept the 100 feet of no man's land between the Iraqi and Syrian checkpoints.
Eventually, he was allowed through. Hundreds more Syrians and Iraqis queued in buses and cars behind him. But they may not find many following them, after reports by the official Syrian news agency Monday that a US missile had hit a busload of fleeing Syrians, killing five and wounding 10. Meanwhile, the price of the 500-mile taxi ride from Baghdad to Amman has soared to $1,500.
Especially worrying is the situation in northern Iraq, where up to half a million Kurds have left their homes in the towns and cities to seek shelter with friends or relatives in the hills, according to aid agencies, adding to the estimated 800,000 people who were already displaced there.
Since Turkey closed its border with northern Iraq last Wednesday, the WFP has been unable to bring in more supplies to feed the 630,000 people it has been assisting for the past decade.
"With dwindling supplies and the security situation deteriorating further, this program could stop very soon," says Khaled Mansour, a WFP spokesman.
The greatest fears, however, are for the 22 million Iraqis in their homes should the war last an extended length of time. Most have stockpiled enough food for about six weeks, since the Iraqi government began issuing double rations to the 65 percent of the population that relies on official rations.
A decade of international sanctions had weakened ordinary Iraqis' health even before the war broke out. More than 1 million children under the age of 4 are malnourished, according to UNICEF estimates.
US and British troops were still fighting Monday to clear pockets of resistance from the town of Umm Qasr, Iraq's only deep-water port, which would give aid agencies a gateway into Iraq from the Persian Gulf. The WFP has 32,000 tons of food in neighboring countries, enough for only 2 million people for a month, Mr. Mansour says.
Ready to enter Iraq are American Disaster Assistance Response Teams, who will distribute food, set up basic shelters, provide emergency primary medical care, and seek to establish water and sanitation facilities.
"We are the band-aid guys," says Bernd McConnell, head of the US Office of Disaster Assistance at a recent briefing for journalists. "It's very basic."
But only when Iraq begins to import food for itself will its people be secure. To that end, diplomats at UN headquarters are discussing how to amend and renew the oil-for-food program.
• Nicholas Pelham in Abu Kamal, Syria, contributed to this report.