Washington, 18 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. says its proposal to allow Iraq to sell unlimited amounts of oil to raise cash for humanitarian needs helps the Iraqi people while still constraining the regime of President Saddam Hussein.
Two senior government officials defended the so-called "oil-for-food" program Wednesday at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that was frequently marked by harsh criticism from some senators over the value of the program.
The United Nations imposed economic penalties on Iraq after Saddam's forces were driven out of neighboring Kuwait in the Gulf War of 1990-91. However, the UN later permitted Iraq to sell up to $10.2 billion of oil a year in order to purchase food, medicines and other humanitarian supplies.
In January, the United States asked the UN Security Council to lift the ceiling entirely. On Wednesday, committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) and a number of other senators questioned the wisdom of the proposal while the U.S. is still engaged in conflict with Iraq.
U.S. Energy Department Secretary William Richardson said the oil-for-food program does not reward Saddam. He said the program's main goal is to help ease the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.
Richardson said: "Although the importation of food and medicine was always allowed under the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the gulf war, Iraq was unwilling to take advantage, full advantage, of this program. This allowed Iraq to starve its own people and blame the sanctions for their suffering. Under the oil-for-food program we have taken this excuse away from Saddam, instead using the proceeds of Iraqi oil sales to feed, cloth and otherwise aid the Iraqi people. Iraq has imported under U.N. supervision $2.75 billion worth of food, over $500 million worth of medicine, and $400 million worth of supplies for water, sanitation, electricity and education. As a result, the average daily food ration for the Iraqi population has risen from 1,275 calories per day in 1996 to 2,100 calories today."
And Richardson also said that without the program, the U.S. would not be able to convince the international community to maintain all of the other sanctions now in force.
He said: "Second, our support for the oil-for-food program has helped us maintain sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations. Undersecretary Pickering will expand on this point, but let me say that we should have -- we would have a harder time keeping U.N. sanctions in place and enforced without this program. And multilateral sanctions are central to our efforts to contain Saddam.
"Third, our concern for meeting the needs of the Iraqi people has been crucial in getting Iraq's neighbors to support the actions we have had to take against Saddam. The United States has always said sanctions are aimed at the current Iraqi regime and not at its people. The oil-for-food program has been and remains evidence that we take Saddam's responsibility to feed his population seriously, even when he does not.
"In conclusion, let me repeat that the oil-for-food program is a key component of the administration's Iraq policy and is therefore key to our national security."
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering said the oil-for-food program is strictly controlled by the United Nations. He said the money from the oil sales is placed into a UN account to which the Iraqi government has no access.
Pickering said: "The current oil-for-food program permits Iraq to sell up to $5.2 billion worth of oil every six months, two-thirds of which goes towards the purchase of food, medicine and other humanitarian goods such as water and sanitation infrastructure supplies. The remaining one-third goes to pay claims arising from Iraq's occupation of Kuwait and to pay U.N. administrative costs and the cost for the United Nations Special Commission inspection regime.
"All revenues from Iraq's oil sales are deposited in a United Nationsescrow account, to which Baghdad has no -- I repeat, no -- access. All contracts are reviewed by the United Nations Sanctions Committee. And the funds are only distributed after the contracts have been approved and the items received in Iraq. As a member of the Sanctions Committee, the United States scrutinizes all contracts. "
However, Senator Frank Murkowski, a Republican from the upper Northwestern state of Alaska, contended that oil, "is really Saddam's lifeline." Said Murkowski: "It fuels his ability to finance his factories of death and rebuild his weapons of mass destruction. And revenue from oil exports historically represent 95 percent of Iraq's foreign-exchange earnings."
The senator charged that there is evidence that Iraq has been steadily increasing illegal exports of oil to Jordan, amounting to about 100,000 barrels per day.
He questioned the wisdom of the Clinton Administration's proposal to lift the restrictions on oil, saying that Saddam cannot be trusted to use the revenues for humanitarian needs.