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UN: Security Council To Consider Revived Oil-For-Food Program For Iraqis

  • Robert McMahon

The UN Security Council -- still deeply divided over the U.S.-led military action in Iraq -- has begun to discuss a resumption of the oil-for-food humanitarian program for Iraqi civilians. U.S. and British officials were to propose a resolution transferring authority for the program from Iraqi to UN officials to avoid any major aid lapses for a population already weakened by 12 years of sanctions.

United Nations, 20 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With U.S. military action against Iraq now underway, UN Security Council members are considering a plan to revive the UN program that provides food for than 60 percent of Iraq's population.

Five foreign ministers of Security Council states used an open meeting yesterday to criticize the U.S.-British moves to wage war in Iraq -- a war that was launched early this morning with a series of air strikes aimed at killing senior members of the Iraqi regime. But there were also signals that the council would try to unify over humanitarian considerations.

U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte told the council that Washington was working with UN officials on a draft resolution to maintain the oil-for-food program in Iraq: "We have begun consulting with the United Nations and other council members on adjustments to the current oil-for-food program that will ensure continued delivery of key humanitarian supplies, particularly food and medicine, to Iraq."

The six-year-old program has generated billions of dollars in oil revenues used to provide basic humanitarian goods for Iraqis while tough economic sanctions remain in place. The United Nations has administered the program in the three Kurdish-controlled northern provinces of Iraq, while Baghdad has run operations in southern and central Iraq.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 17 March suspended the program. He ordered UN humanitarian workers, peacekeepers, and weapons inspectors to leave Iraq ahead of expected military strikes.

The United States is proposing that the United Nations assume authority for the program throughout Iraq. But diplomats said one potentially difficult issue was how long the UN would run the program. The draft resolution could be presented as early as today.

Britain's secretary for international development, Clare Short, discussed humanitarian contingency plans yesterday with Annan before heading to Washington for talks today.

Annan, speaking to the Security Council, stressed the obligations of the U.S.-British force expected to occupy Iraq. But he also said the United Nations was prepared to provide any necessary assistance for Iraqis: "In any area under military occupation, responsibility for the welfare of the population falls on the occupying power. Without in any way assuming or diminishing that ultimate responsibility, we, in the United Nations, will do whatever we can to help."

Annan said the prospects for Iraqi civilians, who have endured 20 years of hardships from war and then economic sanctions, are especially bleak. In addition, the UN has been almost the sole provider of humanitarian services in southern and central Iraq. Nongovernmental organizations have not been permitted the access they have in other needy countries.

But UN agencies say that for the immediate future, Iraqi civilians should have enough food.

The World Food Program has estimated that most Iraqi families have about a six-week supply of food after receiving double distributions from the Iraqi government in recent months.

World Food Program spokesman Jordan Dey says the agency has stocked up enough food in bordering states -- Jordan, Iran, and Turkey -- to feed one million Iraqis for a month. Dey tells RFE/RL the revival of the oil-for-food program would help his agency provide for the longer-term needs of Iraqis: "If we could use those resources to purchase food or at least to fulfill the contracts that are outstanding for these food imports, that would be a huge help. But we certainly can't rely on that in the first couple of days, first couple of weeks."

Annan told the council yesterday the UN will likely issue another appeal for funds much greater than the $123 million requested a month ago to help agencies like WFP carry out relief operations. He said so far only about one-third of that appeal has been met with donations.

But Negroponte told the council that the United States has contributed more than $60 million to UN relief agencies. Britain's UN ambassador, Jeremy Greenstock, said his country has set aside $110 million for relief operations in Iraq.

France, which has led council opposition to military action against Iraq, also signaled its help on humanitarian issues. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said countries had a duty to provide Iraq with humanitarian assistance and "heal the wounds of war:"

"France would take full part in the collective effort to assist the Iraqi people. The oil-for-food program must continue under the Security Council's authority, with the necessary adjustments. We await the secretary-general's proposals [in that regard]."

But any postconflict reconstruction plans could face difficulties if brought to the council. De Villepin said only the United Nations had what he called the "legal and moral authority" to oversee the reconstruction of Iraq.

He said the United Nations must also be responsible for setting out the framework for the country's economic reconstruction, which he said needed to be done in a transparent way.

The United States and Britain are both working on resolutions to reconstruct a postwar Iraq.