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Iraq: Government Selling Humanitarian Food Aid For Hard Currency

  • Charles Recknagel

Kuwait's impounding of an Indian boat carrying baby supplies from Iraq has set off charges by Washington that the Baghdad government is selling humanitarian aid it receives to obtain hard currency. As our correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, the incident is the latest in a long-running battle between Iraq and the international community over humanitarian aid and how Baghdad uses or misuses it.

Prague, 18 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When a Kuwait coast guard patrol boat seized an Indian ( wooden sailing ship) that strayed into its waters on Sunday, Kuwaiti officials soon realized they had more than an ordinary case of trespassing on their hands.

Aboard the boat, called the Nurani, were more than 250 tons of basic commodities and children's goods, including 75 cartons of baby powder and 25 cartons of baby bottles. The boat, which was on its way from Iraq to the United Arab Emirates port of Dubai, was registered in the UAE and included several Iraqis among its crew.

The contents of the boat were extraordinary because the baby supplies originally came to Iraq as humanitarian aid under the U.N.-approved oil-for-food program. The program permits Iraq to sell limited amounts of oil to buy food and medicine to ease the impact on ordinary Iraqis of U.N. trade sanctions.

A leading independent Kuwaiti journalist, Aied al-Mannah, told RFE/RL's Iraq Service that the captain of the Nurani informed Kuwaiti officials that the boat had frequently carried similar goods from Iraq with the approval of Iraqi officials. Aied al-Mannah said:

"The captain said that this is the seventh trip for him taking the same kind of cargo from Iraq in the same direction and that all of the shipments were under the supervision of Iraqi officials."

The seizure of the boat has set off a fierce war of words between Washington and Baghdad over whether Iraq's government is smuggling humanitarian aid out of the country for its own profit.

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters in Washington, D.C., yesterday that the cargo shows Baghdad is cynically disregarding the welfare of its own citizens. James Rubin said:

"The fact that Iraq is exporting nursing supplies for hard currency in violation of sanctions while Iraqi babies and children are suffering from malnutrition is yet another indication of the Iraqi regime's cynical disregard for the welfare of its own citizens and further proof that the responsibility for the suffering of the Iraqi children lies with Saddam Hussein, and not sanctions."

But Iraq has been just as adamant in denying the boat was exporting humanitarian aid. Iraqi officials said in Baghdad immediately after the cargo's seizure that the baby products were being returned to foreign donors because of poor quality. Other officials have also said that the export was by an independent Iraqi businessmen without the knowledge of the government.

The incident adds fuel to a long-standing battle between Iraq and the international community over Iraq's use, or misuse, of humanitarian aid it receives though the U.N.-approved oil-for-food program.

The United States and Britain previously have accused Iraq of hoarding millions of dollars worth of medical supplies obtained under the program and refusing to deliver them to hospitals to deliberately exacerbate the impact of sanctions on the Iraqi populace. Washington and London have said that Baghdad's motivation is to add to pressure to completely lift the sanctions on humanitarian grounds, something two other key security council members, Russia and China, favor.

Baghdad confirmed last month that it has stockpiled some $275 million worth of medicines and medical supplies but that it was doing so because the goods were of poor quality or had no complementary parts to make them usable.

A top U.N. humanitarian aid official for Iraq, Benon Sevan, said last month that large amounts of food, medicines and machine spare parts arriving under the oil-for-food program are substandard or damaged. He also said they sit idle in Iraqi warehouses because Baghdad can neither exchange them or receive reimbursement for them.

But Sevan added that the problem is partly due to the Iraqi government's own insistence on awarding aid contracts under the oil-for-food program to countries it considers friendly, such as India or China, regardless of the quality of the goods they offer.

Meanwhile, Western governments have repeatedly charged Baghdad with violating the oil-for-food program by conducting sizeable oil smuggling operations. They have said the oil smuggling is closely controlled by the regime's elite and that its profits help it to maintain power despite the sanctions.

Western news agencies say the oil is mostly smuggled by truck across northern Iraq's border with Turkey or by barge down the Arabian Gulf, which is patrolled by U.S. Naval ships. The Associated Press reported last month from Iraq that the oil smuggled by ship alone -- most of which goes to Iran or to the UAE -- earns Iraqi officials up to $200 million a month.

The sparring over how Iraq uses humanitarian aid and its oil smuggling is important because it helps determine how much relief Iraq obtains from sanctions. Currently, the only relief is through the oil-for-food program, which permits Baghdad to sell up to $5.2 billion worth of oil every six months to buy food and medicines.

The United Nations has said that amount is adequate to provide Iraqis with basic needs while the country remains under sanctions. But Baghdad has said all U.N. sanctions against it must be lifted to end the suffering of Iraq's people.

The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) reported last week that since sanctions were imposed on Iraq, the mortality rate has doubled for children under five years of age in the government-controlled central and southern districts. But the report said that the child mortality rate had fallen over much the same time frame in the Iraqi-Kurd controlled north of the country, where humanitarian assistance is directly distributed by U.N. workers rather than by Baghdad.

Iraq has been under U.N. sanctions since Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Lifting of the sanctions remains tied to U.N. arms inspectors confirming Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction, but Baghdad has banned U.N. arms monitors from the country since the start of the year.

(RFE/RL Iraq Service correspondent Mohammad Ibrahim contributed to this article.)