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UN: Annan Proposes Modified Program To Feed Iraqis Amid Humanitarian Warnings

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asked the UN Security Council for authority to run the humanitarian program that has fed the majority of the Iraqi population, now that the U.S.-led war against Baghdad is under way. The council is expected to approve of most of Annan's recommendations within days. Meanwhile, UN relief agencies have warned of the potential for a humanitarian crisis for an Iraqi population already weakened by years of war and sanctions.

United Nations, 21 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As the war intensifies in Iraq, the UN Security Council has indicated it will try to move beyond its differences to ensure continuity of humanitarian services to the country.

The council will consider today a proposal from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to take over responsibility for the oil-for-food program. The program was suspended earlier this week ahead of U.S. military attacks on Iraq.

Under the program, the Iraqi government had used revenues from a UN escrow account to feed more than 60 percent of its people in southern and central regions. The UN had administered the program separately in three northern Kurdish-controlled provinces.

The secretary-general has continued to stress that the primary responsibility for the welfare of Iraqis rests with the controlling authority in the country. But in anticipation of a regime change in Iraq, he is asking the council to give him the authority to deal with contracts for goods and services with more flexibility than the Iraqi government had.

His proposal would allow Iraqi oil to be shipped through more export routes, and permit delivery and inspection of humanitarian supplies and equipment anywhere inside and outside Iraq. The council is expected to adopt a resolution approving the new arrangement by next week.

German UN Ambassador Gunter Pleuger told reporters yesterday his government -- still sharply opposed to the U.S. military action -- was committed to helping meet Iraq's humanitarian needs. "What we have to do and will do in the Council is to make the necessary arrangements by Security Council resolution that this program can be started again, and that will be very important given the dimension of the humanitarian needs that are there in Iraq," Pleuger said.

Representatives of UN relief agencies held a special briefing yesterday in Amman, Jordan, to outline the humanitarian challenges posed by the U.S.-led military operation.

They did not report any immediate problems but said the condition of the Iraqi infrastructure and the health of the population was a deep concern after 13 years of sanctions. A spokeswoman for the UN humanitarian program in Iraq, Veronique Taveau, expressed concern about the impact of bombing on water supplies. "If there is no more electricity and water cannot be cleaned, this can lead very quickly to epidemics and you have to bear in mind that it will soon be very hot in Iraq and you know that hot weather can very rapidly spread those epidemics," Taveau said.

The U.S. group Human Rights Watch has also urged U.S. officials not to attack targets such as electricity supplies even if they had a military purpose.

A spokesman for the UN's World Food Program, Khaled Mansour, told the news conference that his agency has gone through months of planning to prepare a food distribution network on short notice.

Mansour said his agency has positioned supplies in neighboring countries to serve 2 million people for one month. The WFP estimates that most Iraqis have enough food to sustain them for up to six weeks.

But to maintain supplies in the near future, Mansour said, relief agencies need more money to purchase them now. "Hundreds of thousands of tons of food have to be ordered within days. Every day that would be wasted without placing orders for food, ships to move them, and trucks to give them to the people, could be another day of suffering for Iraqi civilians," Mansour said.

A revived oil-for-food program could significantly relieve the burden on agencies like WFP. At the time of its suspension, the program had $2.4 billion worth of contracted food supplies that had not yet been delivered. Throughout its six-year history, the program has generated tens of billions of dollars in revenues used for basic humanitarian needs.

A senior UN official told a briefing at UN headquarters yesterday that U.S. officials have given assurances that their military would facilitate humanitarian efforts. But the official said the planning process has been complicated by limited contacts with U.S. military officials and a slow response from donors to the appeal for Iraqi relief funds.