The southern province of Maysan has also reported cases of cholera, but so far there have been no deaths, local officials said.

Salih al-Hasnawi, Iraq's health minister, said years of war have degraded water-treatment facilities in Iraq and deprived many Iraqis of clean drinking water.

"These conditions had contributed to the cholera outbreak," he said.

Mohammed al Masoodi, the council's leader, had ordered the water, electricity and health departments to go on alert in an effort to stop the spread of the disease.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Jordan said it will ban entry of uncanned food from Iraq, whether by road or by air, for two months due to the spread of cholera in Iraq.

Poor services

The World Health Organisation has called for immediate measures to improve water and sanitation infrastructure.

Naima al Qaseer, a WHO representative, said "the outbreak of the disease in Iraq this year is different from previous years, as the majority of cases were recorded in rural areas that lack clean water".

In a statement released on Thursday, WHO officials said "Experience has shown that long-term prevention of cholera depends on access to safe water and adequate sanitation to prevent exposure and interrupt transmission.

"Improving water and sanitation infrastructures is therefore a long-term goal of WHO and its partners in Iraq and, in times of outbreaks, it is essential that immediate measures, such as water treatment at household level, health education and proper case management, are implemented rapidly," the statement said.

A Babel police spokesman said that at least 18 trucks loaded with water purification materials of chloride were on their way to Babel to help combat the disease.

Cholera is a gastrointestinal disease typically spread by drinking contaminated water and can be prevented by treating drinking water with chlorine and improving hygiene conditions.