U.N. Workers Return to Baghdad to Assess Aid Needs

U.N. international staff returned to Iraq's capital Thursday for the first time since the war and will immediately begin to assess emergency humanitarian needs.

The 21-member team was led by the humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, and included representatives of the World Health Organization, the World Food Program, the U.N. Children's Fund and the U.N. Development Program.

The team "will now focus on getting a firsthand assessment of the urgent humanitarian needs of the population so as to get U.N. humanitarian programs back up and running," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

The United Nations will be coordinating relief efforts in Iraq but the U.N. Security Council is still debating the role of the world body now that Saddam Hussein has been overthrown. The current six-month phase of the oil-for-food program, which provides food for 90 percent of Iraq's 24 million people, expires on June 3.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered all U.N. international staff to leave Iraq on March 17, just before U.S.-led forces invaded the country.

At the time, there were 99 international staff members working on humanitarian programs in northern Iraq, 95 international staffers working in Baghdad and central and southern Iraq, and 156 U.N. weapons inspectors and support staff in the country.

With the arrival of the 21-member team in Baghdad, Eckhard said there are now more than 60 U.N. international staff working in Iraq.

The team that returned to Baghdad traveled by road from Amman, Jordan, and was greeted by Iraqis who work for the United Nations at the Canal Hotel, the U.N.'s headquarters in the capital, Eckhard said.

"Over 70 percent of the U.N. offices had been looted during the fighting in Baghdad," he said.

The World Food Program said the humanitarian corridor established from Kuwait into southern Iraq earlier this week is picking up momentum, sending 29 trucks to Basra and Nasiriyah on Thursday.

WFP staff members in Nasiriyah retrieved the records of all 1.8 million beneficiaries of food rations from the oil-for-food program. Eckhard said this was important to ensure proper delivery once the public distribution system is reactivated.

Three truckloads of aid also arrived in Baghdad, one truck carrying meningitis and polio vaccines and surgical kits from the Norwegian government, Eckhard said.