ABOARD THE USS PONCE (AP) – Ships, divers, helicopters and dolphins are all here looking for the same thing – mines that are clogging the waters of southern Iraq and blocking aid shipments.
The first boatload of supplies arrived last week at the strategic southern port of Umm Qasr, but a naval officer acknowledged Monday that navigating the surrounding waterways still poses dangers to regular aid convoys.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” said Royal Navy Cmdr. Brian Mair, one of the officers heading up the U.S.-led coalition’s mine-clearing efforts. “If you don’t want mistakes and accidents to happen, you have to be slow and methodical.”
Clearing a safe path to Umm Qasr is key to securing southern Iraq and creating a foothold for the rest of country. It is Iraq’s only deep-water port, and coalition forces hope to make it the center for distributing humanitarian relief.
In prewar days, Umm Qasr was the main entry point for supplies bought through the U.N.-administered Oil-for-Food Program. An estimated 3 million tons of grain, 1 million tons of dry foods, and 750,000 containers came through the port every year.
War has now disrupted that flow and aid agencies are warning of a potential humanitarian crisis in Iraq, where a dozen years of economic sanctions have left some 60 percent of the country’s 27 million people dependent on government rations.