KUWAIT/GENEVA: Kuwait has approved a $100 million grant for Iraq to support humanitarian and reconstruction projects in areas retaken from Islamic State militants, an Iraqi official said yesterday. The grant is the first Kuwaiti financial assistance to Iraq since Baghdad's occupation of the state from Aug 1990 to Feb 1991, ordered by then-President Saddam Hussein.

Officials from the two countries signed the grant agreement in Kuwait yesterday, a spokeswoman for Iraq's Reconstruction Fund for Areas Affected by Terrorist Operations said. "The grant agreement signed today is an encouraging start for further future cooperation between Iraq and Kuwait," the reconstruction fund chief, Mustafa Al-Hiti, said in a statement.

The fund aims to rebuild cities and territories recaptured from Islamic State, the ultra-hardline group which declared a "caliphate" over parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014. The war with Islamic State escalated as crude prices tumbled, curtailing the Iraqi government budget as it relies almost exclusively on oil sales. Saddam was toppled by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iraq and Kuwait are now close allies against militants.

Separately, countries around the world yesterday pledged more than one billion dollars to help prevent a looming famine in war-torn Yemen at a Geneva conference UN chief Antonio Guterres called a "remarkable success". Yet the $1.1 billion promised fell far short of the $2.1 billion the United Nations has estimated is needed this year alone in a country facing "a tragedy of immense proportions". But Guterres praised the generosity of donor nations, pointing out that such conferences generally do not gather more than a third of the requested amount. This shows a "remarkable solidarity with the Yemeni people," the UN secretary general told reporters.

Kuwait is earmarking $100 million as its contribution towards international relief aid for the Yemeni people. Kuwait's Deputy Prime Minister Khaled Al-Jarallah, who declared the financial allocation at the conference, indicated that the specialized fund was follow-up to a previous sum of $300 million allotted for the Yemeni people.

The previous amount was in the form of soft loans provided by Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED) to finance development projects in Yemen. It was announced during a ministerial meeting of Friends of Yemen held in New York in 2012. Jarallah expressed in his speech a conviction that the ideal solution to the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Yemen required restoration of stability, "a matter that could be attained through political settlement according to the three references and greater effort by the international community, represented by the Security Council".

The deputy foreign minister expressed concern that the UN Security Council's failure to resolve the crisis in Syria might be replayed in Yemen. He regretted that marathon inter-Yemeni negotiations ended without any tangible breakthrough. He, however, expressed readiness to re-host "the Yemeni brothers" to sign a final reconciliation agreement, if the parties reach a settlement. Jarallah renewed his call on Yemeni groups to return to the negotiating table to find a settlement to the conflict.

When opening the conference yesterday morning, Guterres had said it was vital to act quickly. "We are witnessing the starving and the crippling of an entire generation," he said, adding that Yemen is gripped by "the world's largest hunger crisis". He warned that children especially were already dying at an alarming rate, but stressed that "a famine can be prevented if we act quickly and commit to funding crucial life-saving assistance".

Yemen's Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid Mubarek Bin-Dagher had urged donors to be generous, describing how some of his compatriots were "writhing with hunger". "$2.1 billion is the minimum that we should plan on raising," he told the conference. UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien meanwhile said that Yemen was "the world's largest humanitarian crisis today". "We must do more and can do more," he said, insisting that "we can, with your money and support, scale up, we can avert famine and the worst catastrophe." But O'Brien underlined that humanitarian aid alone would not resolve Yemen's crisis. "We need an immediate cessation of hostilities and a return to negotiations and peace," he said.

The conflict has dramatically deepened Yemen's drawn-out humanitarian crisis, with a full 19 million people - two-thirds of the population - now in need of humanitarian aid, the UN said. A total of 17 million of them are going hungry, including more than two million children currently considered acutely malnourished. "On average, a child under the age of five dies of preventable causes in Yemen every 10 minutes," Guterres said. "This means 50 children in Yemen will die during today's conference, and all those deaths could have been prevented." Many of the children who survive "will be affected by stunting and poor health for their entire lives," he added.

Anthony Lake, head of the UN children's agency, urged the world to act immediately, warning that "these children cannot wait for an official famine to be declared". Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom noted that with two million children out of school, there is a growing risk of recruitment by armed groups, while two-thirds of girls are married off before the age of 18. "We must act now", she said. - Agencies