Thousands of Iraqi youngsters will die and hundreds of thousands more will be injured, fall prey to disease, suffer abuse and exploitation or fall behind in school, unless all involved in shaping the post-war future make the battle to protect children the number one priority, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned today.“The war may be over but the work is far from done,” UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said in a message issued a day after some of the agency’s international staff returned to work in Baghdad for the first time in more than six weeks. “Children are still dying, and they’re still at grave risk. Let’s make protecting children as comprehensive and urgent an objective as ending the war was.”Outlining the dangers confronting Iraqi children, UNICEF cited insecurity stopping aid from reaching needy communities; degradation of the water system with widespread health hazards like diarrhoea, cholera and other killer diseases; unexploded munitions with daily reports of injuries and deaths; enormous stress on hospitals, including insufficient medical supplies; insufficient emphasis on opening schools, leaving children on the streets exposed to hazards; and ongoing malnutrition with more than a quarter of all children under age five already malnourished.“We’re calling on both Iraqis and the parties shaping Iraqi society to make the protection of children job number one,” Ms. Bellamy said. “Iraq’s future depends on the health and well-being of its children. At the moment, we are failing them. They should be our first priority – not only in words but in action. And frankly, I’m not seeing nearly enough action for children.”Stressing the overriding importance of schools, she added: “Nothing will do more to immediately improve the well-being and protection of Iraq’s children than getting them back in the classroom. Classrooms give children a positive focus, they allow the sharing of vital information, they keep children off the streets, they protect them from exploitation, they relieve parents and help them focus on their own recovery.“For UNICEF, there is no more obvious and urgent priority than getting learning underway as widely and as quickly as possible,” she added. Returning to Baghdad yesterday, UNICEF’s Iraq representative Carel de Rooy paid tribute to the 200-strong national staff who carried on throughout the war despite enormous difficulties. “These people worked throughout the conflict to maintain water systems and deliver humanitarian supplies,” he said. “They did this despite fears for their own safety, and we at UNICEF applaud them for their courage and dedication.”The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that despite the damage done to the Iraqi health system by years of under-investment, economic sanctions and most acutely by weeks of conflict and looting, a mere $20 million a month was all that was needed to “jump start” hospitals and health centres across the country.The idea behind the plan is to build on existing facilities and their highly committed staffs, WHO said. In the first place, that means making sure the very basics are in place – that floors are cleaned, patients fed and waste removed; that staff are given a daily allowance until a system is worked out to pay their salaries; that basic maintenance work can be done, generators can operate and the most essential medicines can be supplied.The cost of not making this monthly investment could be much greater, the agency added. Without basic cleaning and maintenance, disease outbreaks are almost certain; without food, patients cannot recover; and without an allowance to enable them to feed themselves and their families, health workers and other hospital staff will have to look for work elsewhere.”In the past days and weeks, we have seen the commitment of Iraqi health workers to public health. They have continued to work under some very difficult conditions,” WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland said. “Now we must ensure that their dedication and bravery is not wasted. Iraq’s health system must not collapse for want of finance and support.”On their first full day back in Baghdad, the UN international team led by the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, continued meetings with their national staff and representatives of non-governmental organizations in an effort to increase UN activities in the capital.