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UN: Security Council Decides Oil-For-Food To Continue, But To Be Reviewed

Amid new concern over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the UN Security Council is poised to renew a program that keeps humanitarian goods flowing while sanctions against Baghdad remain in place. A resolution renewing the oil-for-food program also commits Council members in six months' time to adopt a new list of goods that would sharpen the focus on Iraq's military capabilities.

United Nations, 29 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Security Council is set to vote as early as today to renew the humanitarian program for Iraq for another six months.

The five-year-old program, which expires midnight tomorrow, is generally regarded as flawed but necessary to assure Iraqi civilians are provided with basic food, medical, and other supplies. But a six-month effort by the United States and Britain to revise the way sanctions are carried out may have received a boost this week. Diplomats from Russia -- Iraq's main ally on the Security Council -- and the United States agreed that by 1 June, the Council will adopt a new list of imported goods for Iraq that will require approval to make sure they are not used for military purposes. In a concession to Russia, the United States agreed to language in the draft resolution that commits the Council to clarify what steps are needed to lift the 11-year-old sanctions against Iraq.

Diplomats on the Council told reporters yesterday that there was still disagreement on how big the list of goods to be reviewed should be. But they said there was a common feeling that Council members -- especially Russia and the United States -- did not want to clash at a time of cooperation in the campaign against suspected terrorists in Afghanistan.

Richard Murphy is a fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations who has followed Iraqi issues on the Security Council closely. He tells RFE/RL there was clearly a desire to avoid confrontation over Iraq: "It looks to me like we both decided this wasn't the moment to push hard either towards a veto by the Russians or to try to corner the Russians by us."

A Russian veto threat last summer stalled a U.S.-British plan to revise the sanctions regime by freeing up a wide range of civilian goods that currently are subject to review. Instead, the proposal called for establishing a new goods review list that would sharpen the focus on any materials that could be used for chemical, biological, nuclear or conventional weapons. Russia had rejected the proposal, saying the focus should instead be on how to expedite the process in which Iraq's sanctions are lifted. Russia had proposed lifting the sanctions shortly after UN inspectors returned to the country. But Iraq has rejected any calls for a return of inspectors, who were last in the country nearly three years ago.

China and France -- previously supporters of an early lifting of sanctions -- agreed to the U.S.-British review list last summer. Although a decision on Iraqi sanctions is being deferred this week, the new resolution could be a sign of the permanent five Council members coming closer together on dealing with Iraq. That's the view of Jeffrey Laurenti, an expert on UN affairs who is a senior analyst at the United Nations Association of the United States, an independent think tank.

Laurenti tells RFE/RL that the most recent agreement lays the basis for further cooperation on a perennially difficult issue for the Council: "Clearly, the agreement for a six-month extension without changing fundamentally the question of what it is that is under the ban is kind of a place marker, keeping this question open for further discussion. But at least you don't have any of the atmospherics of anger or fundamental opposition."

While council members negotiate during over what items will be on the goods review list, the UN Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) will follow the process closely. The Commission, created in 1999, has not been permitted to enter Iraq but has carried on the work of its predecessor -- UNSCOM -- in reviewing dual-use items imported by Iraq.

UNMOVIC spokesman Ewan Buchanan tells RFE/RL a number of countries exporting goods under the UN's oil-for-food program to Iraq are regularly informing the commission of dual-use items. He says the creation of a new list by the Security Council before 1 June will help clarify the kinds of items not allowed into Iraq: "There has been an arms embargo against Iraq since 1990, since the invasion of Kuwait, but I think one of the things the goods review list will do is to actually detail what sort of items are covered by this review process, and some of the items will of course have potential applications both in [weapons of mass destruction], which is the interest of UNMOVIC, and perhaps conventional weapons-related [areas]."

Iraq has repeatedly rejected Security Council resolution 1284, which created UNMOVIC, but the commission continues to prepare for the day when it might be allowed to make on-site inspections. Buchanan says there are now about 200 people qualified to go into Iraq as inspectors.

In advance of inspections, Buchanan says, the commission has contracted with a commercial firm to collect satellite imagery of Iraq. He says this will help the commission to see whether weapons sites rendered inactive by UNSCOM have become active again. But, he says, they are no substitute for on-site inspections.