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Iraq: UN Presses Security Council To Help Oil Sector

The director of the UN's Iraq Program, Benon Sevan, has asked the Security Council to allow Iraq to buy more equipment to fix its oil industry infrastructure. His comments follow the same recommendation last month by the Secretary General. But no Security Council decisions on Iraq are made easily these days.

United Nations, 8 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The UN Security Council met in closed session yesterday to hear reports from Benon Sevan on the UN's oil-for-food program. The program allows Iraq to sell oil to fund the UN-supervised humanitarian aid program that provides food and medicine to Iraqis, who have lived under sweeping international sanctions for nine years.

A statement from the UN spokesman's office said Sevan repeated the recommendation of Secretary General Kofi Annan, who last month warned of a major breakdown in Iraq's oil industry if the Security Council's sanctions committee continues to limit authorization for spare parts' contracts.

Annan has said if such a breakdown occurred, it could have serious repercussions on the implementation of the country's humanitarian program.

In his discussions with the Security Council yesterday, Sevan also expressed concern about a lack of support from Baghdad on reviewing the country's humanitarian needs. Sevan said that except in a few cases, it had not been possible to engage the Iraqi government formally in detailed discussions on humanitarian needs.

Iraq has been allowed to import $300 million worth of oil equipment and services every six months to maintain the output level that pays for the UN's humanitarian aid program. Annan has recommended that amount be doubled to allow Iraq to properly restore its battered oil sector.

A team of UN experts last week wrapped up inspections of Iraqi oil facilities and is due to issue a report at the end of this month. Meanwhile, Iraq claims that the United States is abusing its position on the Security Council's sanctions committee by blocking hundreds of contracts related to the Iraqi oil industry. The vast majority of the 377 contracts on hold as of the middle of last month were at the request of the United States.

In yesterday's Security Council briefing, Sevan said his office was concerned about the "persistent high level" of holds placed on applications for humanitarian supplies and oil sector equipment. He said there continued to be a steady increase in both the number of applications placed on hold and their value.

The United States has repeatedly expressed concern about the military applications of some of the equipment requested by Iraq. It remains deeply suspicious of Iraq on a number of fronts. The U.S. State Department said last week that illicit oil exports from Iraq average 100,000 barrels a day compared with 50,000 barrels in 1998, when oil prices were much lower.

U.S. officials say efforts to cut down on this illegal trade prompted the recent seizure of a Russian tanker in the Persian Gulf by the U.S. Navy. The tanker was found to be carrying Iraqi oil. Russia, which at first said the oil in the tanker was from Iran, has been supportive of steps that would lead to the eventual lifting of the UN economic embargo against Iraq.

The sanctions against Iraq continue while the UN Security Council attempts to determine whether the country has done away with its weapons of mass destruction. There have been no UN weapons inspections in Iraq since December 1998 but the newly appointed executive chairman of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission is preparing to take up his post.

UN Spokesman Fred Eckhard told reporters yesterday that Hans Blix was expected to take up his new duties by the end of this month. Eckhard said Blix would consult with the Secretary-General and the Under-Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs, Jayantha Dhanapala, about the composition of the new mission.