Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the United Nations will do whatever it can to bring assistance and support to the Iraqi people and called on all parties in the conflict to scrupulously observe the requirements of international humanitarian law. Just after the deliberations of the Security Council reached a dead end, he said he regretted that, despite the best efforts of the international community and the U.N., war has come to Iraq for the third time in a quarter of a century. He also stressed that the peoples of the world had made clear that they wanted their leaders to solve their problems within the U.N. framework.

"Perhaps if we had persevered a little longer, Iraq could yet have been disarmed peacefully, or - if not - the world could have taken action to solve this problem by a collective decision, endowing it with greater legitimacy, and therefore commanding wider support, than is the case now," he said.

"But let us not dwell on the divisions of the past. Let us confront the realities of the present, however harsh, and look for ways to forge stronger unity in the future."

The Secretary-General said his thoughts today were with the Iraqi people, who face yet another ordeal. "I hope that all parties will scrupulously observe the requirements of international humanitarian law, and will do everything in their power to shield the civilian population from the grim consequences of war. The United Nations, for its part, will do whatever it can to bring them assistance and support," he said.

"Let us hope the future will be much brighter for the Iraqi people than the recent past, and that they will soon have the chance to rebuild their country in peace and freedom, under the rule of law," he added, concluding: "Over the past weeks, the peoples of the world have shown what great importance they attach to the legitimacy conveyed by the authority of the United Nations. They have made clear that, in confronting uncertainty and danger, they want to see power harnessed to legitimacy. They want their leaders to come together, in the United Nations, to tackle the problems shared by all humanity.

The United Nations launched a $2.2 billion emergency appeal for immediate humanitarian assistance for the people of Iraq over the next six months, with $1.3 billion devoted to a massive food aid operation.

Officially launching the appeal at UN Headquarters in New York, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette noted that much of the Iraqi population was already in urgent need, and more undoubtedly would be in the days and weeks ahead.

"The war is now creating acute new needs, and that is why we are appealing for new money today," Ms. Fréchette said. She also noted that while international UN staff have been temporarily withdrawn from Iraq, more than 3,000 national staff continue to provide assistance and support to the Iraqi people.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said the $1.3 billion food sector of the appeal, for which it will be responsible, could evolve into the largest humanitarian operation in history, assuring the needs of some 27.1 million people.

The UN warned that the emergency needs of the Iraqi people also went beyond food, and said the appeal includes provisions for refugees both inside Iraq and in neighbouring countries and other vulnerable groups.

"It is painfully evident that the international community must act immediately to prepare for all eventualities and in order to avert disaster," the UN said in a statement. "The most vulnerable members of the population, women and children, are at greatest risk."

Household food stocks were already in short supply in some areas of Iraq and were likely to become further strained, according to the UN. "Prolonged hostilities may therefore result in a serious humanitarian crisis amongst a population already rendered vulnerable by poverty and seriously degraded services," the statement said.

Aside from food supplies, the appeal also covers such assistance as the provision of potable water to the general population; health and nutrition help to children, lactating mothers, the elderly and infirm; and shelter, de-mining operations and emergency infrastructure repairs.

In Rome, the WFP said that with the majority of Iraqis set to exhaust their food reserves by May, the agency planned to support a food distribution system capable of meeting the needs of the entire population of 27.1 million people.

"Every day that passes without orders for food, ships and trucks could be another day of suffering for Iraqi civilians," WFP Executive Director James Morris declared. "We cannot afford to lose time."

While pointing out that the appeal was an additional call for humanitarian aid for Iraq, Ms. Fréchette stressed that it should not be counted against existing emergencies in other parts of the world.

At the same time, the Security Council unanimously approved a resolution adjusting the suspended Oil-for-Food programme to give the Secretary more authority to administer the operation for the next 45 days.

The programme, which allows Baghdad to use part of its oil revenues for food and medicine and is the sole source of sustenance for 60 per cent of the country's 27.1 million people, was temporarily halted on 17 March after the Secretary-General ordered the withdrawal of all UN personnel from Iraq.

The new resolution authorizes the Secretary-General to carry out a variety of tasks, such as reassessing the contracts that have been approved, and covers technical issues such as providing alternative locations for the delivery of supplies. Mr. Annan was also given the power to negotiate new contracts for essential medical items.

The resolution, which is subject to further renewal after 45 days, also expresses the Council's readiness "as a second step" to authorize the Secretary-General to perform additional functions with the necessary coordination as soon as the situation permits, as activities on the programme in Iraq resume.