By Gary Jones

ONE million Iraqi children under the age of five could die from malnutrition if there is a war, warns a confidential United Nations' report.  It says that five million Iraqis are vulnerable. Its experts estimate that up to half a million would need medical treatment for injuries.  But they think that most deaths would come from disease and starvation not military attack.  Around 70 per cent of the population - 18 million - would have no water supply and 8.7 million no sanitation if the country was blitzed.

The 27-page dossier has been compiled by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in New York and has been put on Secretary General Kofi Annan's desk.  It warns the the UN would not be able to cope with such a humanitarian catastrophe.

A senior UN source said: "If anybody suggests the people of Iraq aren't going to suffer in the event of war, you can tell them they are lying.  "The UN's leading minds have worked out the full ramifications of war and they don't make pleasant reading. This is not something you're going to hear from George Bush or Tony Blair for that matter. They don't want to discuss the human casualties of war.  "A change of regime may be what they want, but a protracted war will bring hundreds of thousands of deaths. That is fact."

But Mr Blair yesterday sidestepped questions about the UN predictions. Asked by the Daily Mirror about the report, he said: "There are Iraqi children suffering from malnutrition today, thousands dying needlessly.  "We must make every single provision we can that in the event of conflict we take care of the population. We will do that."  But he added: "It is worth people understanding there are also consequences of not taking action because there are people in Iraq suffering daily, dying daily, thousands of children dying."

The report says that the situation in Iraq after years of sanctions is already desperate.  The infant mortality is 2.5 times higher than it was in 1990. Half of all pregnant women are anaemic and 30 per cent of babies are born with a low birth weight.  Most Iraqi families have only a few weeks of food supplies and 16 million rely on state hand-outs. Three million are at risk of malnutrition. The report claims shortage of essential drugs will be felt within a month of attack. Up to one and a half million Iraqis would flee their country.

Dr Glen Rangwala, politics lecturer at Cambridge University, said: "Since sanctions began 12 years ago the country has been run as a refugee camp and is set to get far worse.  "Most people depend on rations just to survive on a daily basis. We've seriously got to think what will happen to these people in the event of war.  "The UK has made available £16 million for humanitarian assistance. This is equivalent cost of running the military budget for 22 minutes."

The UN report also confesses that it could do little to ease the situation if there was a war.   Most staff would be evacuated leaving only local workers confined to their houses for their own safety. It also does not have enough money to fund food supplies.