BY SIMON CALDWELL
A WORLDWIDE network of Catholic aid agencies has begged the United States of America and her allies not to wage a new war against Saddam Hussein.
Member organisations of Caritas Internationalis have 'warned Western governments that as many as 16 million civilians will suffer as a result of a military campaign to oust the Iraqi dictator.
Their appeal came at the end of six-day visit to five cities in Iraq by a delegation led by Julian Filochowski, director of Cafod, the overseas development agency of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.
"Bombing and invasion would exact a terrible toll, far worse than the Gulf War of 1991," said Mr Filochowski.
"This is not only because the bombing and fighting will inevitably focus on urban, populated areas, especially Baghdad, but because the recovery of the people from the Gulf War is still so fragile. "The horrendous burden of 12 years of sanctions and trade embargo has left the people highly vulnerable."
The seven-man delegation were guests of Chaldean Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid. Meetings were held with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, Health Minister Oumid Medhat Moubarak, and senior officials from United Nations aid organisations and the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.
On their return from Iraq, the aid agencies launched a report called On the Brink of War: A Recipe for Humanitarian Disaster.
It said that between 14 million and 16 million Iraqis were totally dependent on the United Nations' monthly food ration distribution programme, which, it said, could collapse as soon as the first bombs are dropped.
The report, published last Friday, also says that the country's health and water systems could also collapse rapidly, increasing an initial death toll, estimated at 100,000 people, by those dying from untreated injuries and disease. "Precision bombing, however skilful, has a margin of error and in populated areas, if even five per cent of the missiles to be dropped in the first days of bombing go astray, and each kills and maims, then the casualties will mount very fast, especially when indirect deaths, from disease or as a result of the expected huge displacement of populations to refugee camps, are taken into account," Mr Filochowski told reporters.
"In the end. a war on Iraq will be devastating for the Iraqi people. They can never be considered collateral damage to a greater cause, when we are well aware of the full and terrible consequences of military action.
"Ordinary people are frightened, aware that the prospect of military action is hanging over them like the sword of Damocles. War and rumours of war have a deep psychological impact on all people.
"While in Iraq, delegation members heard about people selling off possessions to raise cash, buying in stores of food and fuel and wondering where they can find a safe place for their children, not knowing what next month will bring.
"Whatever their grievances, or suffering, the Iraqi people do not want war. It is simply untrue that any kind of war is welcome to them."
The report recommended the mobilisation of Catholics who support the aid agencies to lobby their governments against war, calling instead for the return to Iraq of UN weapons inspectors among other peaceful solutions to the crisis. Caritas Internationalis will also organise a "prayer action" for peace in Iraq and the Middle East on each Friday until the crisis passes.
Opposition to a new Gulf War continues to mount as the US and Britain appear to clear the way for the conflict.
Last week, some 4,000 demonstrators brought traffic to a halt in Whitehall, London, as they gathered outside the Houses of Parliament to protest against a strike against Saddam.