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Iraq: UN Official Calls For Improving Infrastructure

  • Robert McMahon

The UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Tun Myat, says delays in improvements to housing and sanitation are helping to prolong the suffering of Iraqi civilians. Myat says the key to such improvements is lifting the holds placed by UN Security Council members on more than $2 billion worth of contracts. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports on Myat's first news conference at UN headquarters since assuming his post earlier this year.

United Nations, 20 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The head of the UN's oil-for-food program in Iraq says the civilian population is now receiving adequate amounts of food and medicine, but health standards remain poor in most places because of shoddy infrastructure.

Tun Myat told reporters yesterday (Thursday) that he came to New York to meet with members of the UN Security Council committee responsible for overseeing the 10-year sanctions regime for Iraq.

He says he is concerned by the growing number of holds placed by the committee on contracts paid for through the oil-for-food program. Those holds now amount to more $2.2 billion, nearly 40 percent of them affecting the electricity sector.

Myat says without improvements to things like housing and sanitation, Iraqis will continue to live in unhealthy conditions:

"Their livelihood is not going to get better unless the other accompanying basics like housing and electricity and water and sanitation are also put back and that's what we are all about at the moment."

The United States and Britain, working within the Security Council's sanctions committee, regularly place holds on items that could be suspected of having military uses or lacking proper documentation. Items are only cleared after all committee members are satisfied of their end-use application.

The program was set up in December 1996 to enable Iraq to sell oil under UN supervision to buy food, medicine and other essentials. All contracts for oil sales and humanitarian goods must be approved by the committee in New York.

Myat says infrastructure problems are most severe in the extreme south of Iraq, an area where sanitation and water systems have been underdeveloped and which absorbed heavy damage from a war with Iran in the 1980s and the subsequent Gulf War.

By contrast, he says, water and sanitation systems are much better in the Kurdish-controlled north and in the Baghdad area.

But Myat dismisses suggestions that people are generally healthier in the north because the United Nations controls the humanitarian program, not the government of Saddam Hussein, which administers the program in south and central Iraq. Myat says the Kurdish region benefits from better vegetation and water supplies and a smaller, more manageable population.

He also praises the Iraqi government's system of food distribution, calling it "second to none in the world." Myat says adequate food supplies are now available to all Iraqis, but that many hungry Iraqis are forced to sell food rations to take care of other pressing needs.

"People have become so poor in some cases, they can't even afford to eat the food that they've been given free. Because for many of them food rations represent the major part of their income."

Myat says humanitarian aid flights recently begun by Syria, Jordan, Russia, and other countries are providing only a "minuscule" amount of aid. He indicates it is unlikely such flights will undermine the sanctions regime, as some critics of the flights have said.

But Myat says he would like the Security Council to set up a team of professional inspectors to check the cargoes of the flights.

He also acknowledges that reports of Iraq importing whiskey and other luxury goods are likely to be true. But he says Iraq has "[its] own sources of income" beyond UN-controlled oil sales.

Myat, who has been coordinator for six months, noted Thursday that two of his predecessors resigned because of frustrations that the oil-for-food program -- also known as resolution 986 -- was not working. He says he is committed to making the program work.

"No matter what people say about the 986 program, let's not forget that that's the only game in town. If the 986 program does not work, there is nothing else that the population can live through."

The program can also be eased considerably if Iraq decides to comply with a new weapons inspection regime set up by the Security Council. So far it has refused, saying it no longer possesses weapons of mass destruction.

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