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Iraq: Government Opposes UN's Offer To Pay Haij Pilgrims Directly

Prague, 2 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq and the UN are again headed for a showdown over whether Iraqi pilgrims will be able to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Security Council yesterday agreed to provide some $50 million from Iraq's UN-controlled oil sales to Iraqi pilgrims to fund their travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, which begins in two weeks. Few Iraqis -- whose economy is hard hit by UN sanctions -- can afford to pay the costs themselves.

But the UN and Baghdad have yet to solve a conflict over how the money will be distributed. The UN wants to give the money itself directly to the pilgrims through its humanitarian office in Baghdad. But the Iraqi government wants the UN to transfer the money first to an Iraqi bank so it can be distributed by Iraqi officials.

The same conflict proved impossible to overcome last year, when the UN first offered to pay Hajj expenses as a humanitarian exception to sanctions. Kamran al-Karadaghi of RFR/RL's Iraqi Service says the result was a showdown in which the pilgrims become hostages to the battle. Baghdad first refused the UN offer, then also refused a Saudi effort to break the deadlock. Al-Karadaghi says:

"Last year the conflict was impossible to solve. Iraq decided to send hundreds of pilgrims in busloads to the border with Saudi Arabia and at first they camped on the border. Then the Saudi government decided that they should all enter and the [Saudi] king announced he will cover all the expenses, but immediately after that the Iraqi government decided not to accept this offer and they called back all the pilgrims to Iraq without letting them continue the Hajj process."

Baghdad refused to allow the UN to pay the pilgrims directly, saying that would violate its sovereignty. It also said it would not accept charity from Saudi Arabia.

The UN fears that sending money for the pilgrims through the Iraqi government would only mean much of it would disappear along the way. So far, neither side shows any sign of changing its position this year.