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Iraq: UN Renews Food For Oil Program

By Joe Laurie

New York, 24 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations plan allowing Iraq to sell more than $5 billion in oil to pay for humanitarian goods begins a new six-month period tomorrow (Tuesday) with the approval of the Security Council.

China, Russia and France voted during the weekend in favor of the extension, though they called for an end to the oil export embargo on Iraq which the council put in place after Baghdad's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The Chinese ambassador, Qin Huasun, also called in the council debate for "an immediate halt" in U.S. and British air strikes on Iraq, which China says has led to civilian casualties. China's demand took on added significance in the wake of NATO's accidental bombing of Beijing's Belgrade embassy.

Iraq said on Sunday that two people were wounded when U.S. and British F-16s struck targets in the country's northern no-fly zone. Britain and the U.S. have also been patrolling a southern no-fly zone since the end of the 1991 Gulf War. An Iraqi military spokesman said "the planes attacked our service installations and some of our weapons sites...and the bombing led to the injury of two citizens.''

China, Russia and France want sanctions on Iraq to be suspended for 100 days after a new U.N. weapons inspection team is allowed to return to Iraq. The inspectors, who are charged by the council with ferreting out and destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, left the country in December days before the U.S. bombed Iraq as punishment for not cooperating with the U.N. team.

Britain and the U.S. argue that sanctions must remain until the inspectors declare Iraq free of such weapons.

Russia's U.N. envoy, Sergei Lavrov, said: "`While agreeing to this resolution we reiterate once again the need to urgently arrive at a settlement of the current deadlock, which would involve introducing a new monitoring and disarmament mechanism in Iraq in conjunction with relieving the burden of economic sanctions.''

Lavrov added: "Unless this happens, we don't believe the humanitarian problems of Iraq could be alleviated.''

France tried to amend the resolution to have the ceiling on oil exports lifted, but it was defeated by the U.S. and Britain. France was a large importer of Iraqi oil before the Gulf War and Russia is owed thousands of millions of dollars from Iraq dating back to Soviet days.

The resolution says it will consider lifting the $5.26 billion food for oil ceiling in future extensions. A U.N. panel established to study Iraq's humanitarian situation recommended in March that the cap on oil sales be lifted and that foreign companies be allowed to invest in Iraq's oil industry.

Britain and the U.S. have proposed foreign investments if arms inspectors are allowed to return.

Under the food-for-oil plan which began in December 1996, Iraqi now exports about 1.9 million barrels a day, which is roughly 2.5 percent of world oil supply. Before the Gulf War, Iraq was a major oil exporter.

Proceeds from the oil sales go into a U.N. escrow account from which purchases are made for food and medicine. Iraq is also allowed to spend $300 million of this money every six months to pay for spare parts and other equipment to keep their pumps going. One-third of the money goes for war reparations and for the costs of the program.

The U.N. monitors the purchases and distribution of the aid to ensure that Baghdad does not use it to buy military equipment.

According to Peter Burleigh, the acting U.S. representative to the UN, "the program is the largest humanitarian program in history, and it has brought about a significant improvement in living conditions for Iraqi civilians." Iraq says that revenue from the capped oil sales is insufficient to meet Iraq's humanitarian needs.

Russia's deputy envoy to the U.N., Andrei Granoovsky, said: "There is a need again to stress that only the lifting of sanctions and not this palliative will help us overcome this social and humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

Iraq says it has not yet been notified that the plan would be extended. It is not clear whether Baghdad, which has been increasingly strident in its calls for the lifting of all sanctions, would agree to the extension. A Baath party official said during the weekend that Iraq would not accept a U.N. resolution that did not end to trade sanctions.

If Iraq accepts the plan and oil prices remain at current levels, Iraq could sell $5.26 billion by Oct. 20. The plan does not come up again for extension until Nov. 20. The resolution says that if Iraq reaches the cap early it will consider raising the limit to ensure that oil continues to flow and pay for the humanitarian goods.