As the United States takes the first small steps in the aid program for Iraq -- the distribution of 3 million food packages by the military -- experienced aid officials aren't expecting this early aspect of the program to be as simple as it seems, nor much more than a token gesture.
The program is similar to a previous aid operation in Afghanistan, when the same kinds of food packages were delivered to stranded civilian populations during combat. That effort was widely criticized by aid organizations.
The packages were air-dropped from 40,000 feet, causing some to burst and the food to spoil. The directions on the packages were in English. And the bright yellow packs were the same color as cluster bombs. Many Afghans were afraid to touch them, let alone eat them.
This time, in a small but deliberate effort to create some instant goodwill among the Iraqi people, the same ready-made meals are being distributed from military trucks as they roll northward through Iraq. The program is intended to show compassion for people suffering the effects of the war, Pentagon sources said.
"It's a stopgap measure, an innovative tool to feed people," said one official, who asked not to be identified.
But no one can be sure how the aid will be received. And just as in Afghanistan, not everyone is applauding the program.
Any time the military distributes humanitarian aid, there is always a mixed message, said Rick Augsburger, director of emergency response for Church World Service and co-chairman of a group working on Iraq aid and supported by a broad coalition of U.S. nongovernmental humanitarian agencies.
"It's highly inappropriate," he said. "Humanitarian assistance needs to be given from a position of impartiality.... There is no guarantee it will be accepted as a humanitarian gesture. Does it put someone at risk in Iraq just for accepting it? I don't know that it doesn't."
The international aid community was led to believe that Iraqis would welcome the U.S. invasion, said Ahuma Adodoadji, director of emergency response for CARE. "We have not seen that," he said. "Is this an olive branch? Hard to tell if this will calm fears.
"This particular operation is highly unusual, to so closely integrate humanitarian aid into a military operation," Adodoadji said, noting that "the jury is still out" on the effectiveness of using the military to distribute aid.
Augsburger said that "Afghanistan was the first time we saw humanitarian aid embedded in a military action, so visibly part of a war strategy." And there, he added, "we heard ... that people were afraid to touch" the aid packages.
The military's Humanitarian Daily Rations have not been altered to appeal specifically to Iraqis -- although new ration packages are salmon-colored, said Jim Lecollier, contracting officer with the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia, which is responsible for purchasing the meals.
Each package is labeled "Food Gift From The People Of The United States of America."
Lecollier said the vegetarian meals are designed to be as nutritious as possible and acceptable to all cultures.
Each package contains three meals, including two main courses such as "barley stew," "rice and vegetables with sauce" and "red beans and rice." There are also packages of peanut butter with crackers, cookies and strawberry jam. All told, the food provides at least 2,200 calories. Of that, at least 10% come from protein. There is nothing perishable. The rations cost $4.35 each and have a shelf life of up to three years at 80 degrees.
The meals have fewer calories and less variety than the often-derided rations prepared for U.S. troops. But they're just as tasteless, Lecollier said.
Several representatives of aid organizations said their groups do not use the rations to feed people because of the connection to the military.
With Iraq's population at about 24 million, 3 million one-day rations are not expected to make any substantial difference in the country's food needs, aid groups said.
"Our long-term strategy is to use culturally appropriate food, with clear attention to local cultures and diet. Feed people what they are used to receiving. Purchase it locally," said Augsburger, who added that aid groups are prepared to enter Iraq with food and medical supplies as soon as it is safe for workers.
At this early point in the conflict, the Iraqi people are not in crisis unless they have had to flee their homes, said Jordan Dey, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program, which estimates that most Iraqi families have stockpiled six weeks' worth of food.
The United Nations has stored enough food in the countries surrounding Iraq to feed 2 million refugees for up to one month, he said.
Still, at least 60% of the Iraqi population was dependent on U.N.-sponsored food rations before the conflict began, he said.
"We need a system in place to reach all Iraqis" with a long-term supply of food, said Dey, noting that the United Nations estimates it will cost $1 billion to feed the nation for six months.
"We have all of the logistics in place. What we don't have is the money to fill the trucks with food," he said, repeating the view that it is best to buy food locally for quick distribution.