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Middle East: Oil-For-Food Medicines To Iraq Resold In Lebanon And Jordan

By Ahmed Al-Rikabi and Charles Recknagel

The United States has frequently accused Baghdad of illegally reselling humanitarian goods it purchases under the UN oil-for-food program. Radio Free Iraq recently confirmed that some of the re-sold medicines can be found on the shelves of pharmacies in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. RFE/RL correspondents Ahmed Al-Rikabi and Charles Recknagel have the story.

Prague, 15 September 2000 (RFE/RL)) -- US officials have often charged Iraq with reselling some of the products it is allowed to buy as humanitarian exceptions to UN sanctions.

The goods, purchased by Baghdad through the UN's oil-for-food program, are supposed to ensure ordinary Iraqis have access to basic foods and medicines. But sometimes the products re-appear instead aboard boats sailing from Iraq to markets in the Gulf.

One such boat was intercepted by a Kuwait coast guard ship a year ago. On board were over 250 tons of basic commodities, including products intended for children.

Now, new evidence has emerged that Iraq is also reselling some of its oil-for-food purchases in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. And this time the goods include medicine intended for victims of asthma.

Radio Free Iraq, or RFI, has confirmed reports in the region that a shipment of the anti-asthmatic spray Ventolin -- manufactured by Britain's Glaxo-Wellcome -- have appeared in quantity on the shelves of Beirut pharmacies. The products are being offered at discounted prices unavailable through normal pharmaceutical distribution systems.

Our correspondents contacted Glaxo-Wellcome, where an official who requested anonymity confirmed that the company had exported large quantities of the drug to Iraq under the oil-for-food program. The company shipped the goods by sea to Beirut, where trucks sent by the Iraqi Ministry of Transport took delivery.

The Glaxo-Wellcome official said the company was later surprised to find large amounts of the drug abruptly being sold in Lebanese pharmacies and stores. Of a total of 1.4 million units that were supposed to be taken to Iraq, the company has so far found 15,000 units on Lebanese shelves. The official told RFI that large quantities also were being sold on the black market and that Lebanese authorities have arrested a number of people in connection with selling the drug.

RFI Beirut correspondent Ali Al-Rammahi recently toured Beirut pharmacies to make an informal inventory of the goods. He said some pharmacists refused to discuss where the medicines came from, while others confirmed that they had been approached to buy the oil-for-food products but had refused.

"During visits to a number of pharmacies, many refused to discuss the existence of these [medicines], while others told us that they had refused to buy medicines they knew had come from Iraq, that is, which had been imported for Iraq but which certain parties have been re-exporting to other countries such as Lebanon. Dr. Hala Abdul-Qadir, a pharmacologist, told us she had refused to buy drugs coming out of Iraq, despite their very low prices. She said that for her the matter involves a humanitarian crime and that she cannot imagine Iraqis are dying from a lack of these medicines, when they are being sold here dirt cheap."

Dr. Hala also told our correspondent that some local pharmaceutical companies have imported medicines from Iraq, then distributed them after stamping them with their company logo [that is, symbol]. She says this is an effort to cover the medicines' trail and put the importers beyond the reach of the law.

The Lebanese Pharmacists Union is reported to have distributed a letter to all pharmacies warning them against buying a number of medicines from such importers and providing the batch codes to identify the packages. Some of the medicines are for use in emergencies and in operating rooms.

The director of a charity clinic in Damascus told our correspondent that the clinic is continuously offered large quantities of medicines and medical supplies by Iraqi smugglers. The same doctor says that some operating-room essentials, such as disinfectants, have come into Syria in such quantities that they are now competing with their Chinese equivalents in low pricing.

The reselling comes as Baghdad says that it is suffering critical shortages of medicines for its own hospitals. The Iraqi government has repeatedly blamed high rates of mortality among Iraqi infants on the UN sanctions and lack of medicine and hospital equipment. The UN childrens agency -- UNICEF -- said in a report last year that children under the age of five in Baghdad-controlled areas are dying at more than twice the rate of 10 years ago.

There is also evidence that humanitarian products purchased by Iraq are being resold in Jordan. RFI's Amman correspondent Hazim Mubaidhen reports that pharmacists there are well aware of the trade. Hazim Mubaidhen:

"Some dealers in the medical sector report that some Iraqis are smuggling medicines out of Iraq to be sold on the Jordanian market at reduced prices, in comparison to the officially imported medicines coming into Jordan. An Amman pharmacist told RFI that he does not deal in these medicines for a number of reasons. Most important is that they have been improperly transported, as they are smuggled out concealed in hiding places in cars where they are subjected to very high temperatures. They thus lose their medical efficacy, if not becoming harmful to whoever uses them."

Our correspondent learned that the majority of the medicine smugglers are drivers who regularly work the Baghdad-Amman route and do a good business thanks to the low product prices they offer. He says the large quantities involved indicate that it is not a freelance business by the drivers but a well-organized operation within Iraq.

Iraq remains under UN sanctions that were imposed following Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Lifting of the sanctions is tied to arms inspectors verifying Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction. But Iraq has refused to allow inspectors to return to work after they left Iraq at the end of 1998 amid a dispute over access to suspected weapons sites.

The UN sanctions are intended to deprive the Iraqi government of money for armaments. But Baghdad earns large amounts of money from smuggling oil down the Gulf and to Turkey and -- if recent evidence is any indication -- from reselling part of the products it receives under the oil-for-food program.