If the United States attacks Iraq, it will hit an infrastructure already on the verge of collapse and a population so impoverished and fragile that quick action will be needed to avert a humanitarian disaster, according to relief organizations with years of experience here.
Decades of war and sanctions have siphoned funds from such fundamental tasks as maintaining sewage treatment plants and water pumping stations. The added shock of a war could cut off food and cripple sanitation, leading to widespread hunger and illness.
"There could be starvation," said Veronique Taveau, spokeswoman for the U.N. humanitarian coordinator here. "Really, the population is very fragile. They don't have anything."
Iraq has moved to a war footing in recent days, dividing itself into zones of defense and spreading the word to the people that invasion appears inevitable. The capital, which seemed to be sleepwalking through the crisis, is now getting ready, as soldiers fill sandbags and mount them on street corners. Lines have formed at gas stations.
But there is only so much Iraqis can do about a crisis that threatens them on so many fronts. Relief workers say they anticipate tens of thousands of internally displaced people, shortages of clean water, outbreaks of diarrhea and other illnesses, and insufficient supplies of food and medicine. There are about 24 million people in Iraq -- Baghdad has 5 million -- half of them younger than 18.
To underscore the risk, relief workers note that more than half of the people rely entirely on government food handouts.
"If there is no other mechanism to provide food, it can lead to catastrophe," Taveau said. "We are talking about 13 million people fully dependent."
Iraq has tried to ready its citizens and for the last six months has been giving out double food rations. But Iraqis are poor -- the unemployment rate is about 60% -- so many have sold part of their rations. Instead of a six-month supply, it is estimated that families have on average six weeks' worth of food.
Even that figure may be optimistic. Shortages mean that many people are unable to get their full share of supplies. The rations distributed in February included just 13% of the allotment of milk, 16% of white beans and half the quota of salt.
"The people are vulnerable. They have no assets," said Carel de Rooy, UNICEF representative in Iraq.
From a humanitarian perspective, if the bombing is relatively brief and the conflict short-lived, immediate disaster could be averted. But if there is a siege, if the situation drags on, circumstances might become dire. In Baghdad, many people who had the means have already fled. Many of those left behind tend to be the poorest among the poor.
"The major fear is not that people will go hungry in the early part of the war," said Roland Huguenin-Benjamin, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross here. "If it's a protracted crisis, lots of problems may appear."
U.N. officials have for many months been warning of the grave consequences Iraqi civilians face -- consequences beyond bombs and missiles. The United Nations asked member countries for $124 million to deal with the situation but received only about $30 million. Donor nations who were opposed to the war did not want to make it appear that they had given up on peace, so they didn't contribute.
Iraq is also in a state of disrepair. In the 1970s, the government invested in state-of-the-art infrastructure -- massive sewage treatment plants, hundreds of water pumping stations, roads, schools, hospitals. That infrastructure is now out of date, malfunctioning and at the end of its life expectancy.
The nation's deep slide began in 1980, when the government started pouring its oil revenues into a disastrous war with Iran that ended in 1988 with what was, in effect, a stalemate. Not long after came the invasion of Kuwait. A U.S.-led coalition expelled Hussein's military from the emirate, and the United Nations slapped Iraq with comprehensive economic sanctions that were to be lifted when the country proved it had disarmed. But Iraq never established that it had fully disarmed, so the sanctions were never lifted.
In the early years of the sanctions, Iraq faced widespread hunger. Malnutrition for children younger than 5 reached 32%. Then, in 1996, Iraq accepted a U.N.-administered "oil-for-food" program that allowed Iraq to sell oil under the auspices of the United Nations. The revenue was used to buy food and essential supplies. It is true that life got better, but better in Iraq is still not good. Malnutrition for children under 5, for example, is now 23%.
In the last 12 years, the Red Cross has worked with Iraq to install generators at more than 100 pumping stations around the country, and the government has reportedly stocked fuel at them as well. But if, as expected, the government initiates a 24-hour curfew during the early days of fighting, it might be impossible for anyone to service the generators. Fuel might also run out.
The Red Cross and UNICEF have supplied hospitals with hundreds of thousands of small plastic bags filled with water to be used in the event supplies are cut during the war, and UNICEF has been giving out fortified milk and protein biscuits to help bulk up the most seriously malnourished children. The Red Cross also has five warehouses in Iraq and three in neighboring countries, with supplies to be distributed when possible.
But most of these measures are seen as stopgaps.
In just a few weeks, temperatures in Iraq will start to climb to nearly 100 degrees. If the sewage system has been damaged, and the water purification and pumping systems compromised, that could create serious health and hygiene problems.
"This war might be very different than anything we lived through before," said Huguenin-Benjamin of the Red Cross. "This conflict has lots of potential risks and dangers we cannot account for."