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UN: Oil-For-Food Program Set To Expire In November

Iraqs oil-for-food program, set up to feed Iraqis under lengthy UN sanctions, is due to be phased out in eight weeks. The head of the program, Benon Sevan, affirmed yesterday he will close down the program. Sevan told the UN Security Council that the reduction in UN international staff in Iraq due to security concerns is making the process more difficult. But UN officials express confidence that local staff can maintain the distribution network that feeds most of the country.

United Nations, 30 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The UN humanitarian program that has provided food and other basic goods to Iraqis for nearly seven years is set to be closed down on schedule in eight weeks' time. Officials with the United Nations and U.S.-led coalition stressed that Iraqi nationals would keep most elements of the food distribution system functioning throughout the country for the foreseeable future.

The program, the largest of its kind ever operated by the UN, allowed the regime of Saddam Hussein to use oil revenues to purchase vital goods and improve the oil industry infrastructure while monitoring for goods related to Iraqi weapons programs. There were many reports of abuses of the system by Husseins regime, but humanitarian experts credit it with helping to feed the majority of the Iraqi people.

The head of the program, Benon Sevan, told the UN Security Council yesterday that sharp staff reductions have complicated preparations for phasing it out. These include the transfer of assets to bodies run by Iraqis and the Coalition Provisional Authority.

But Sevan told reporters he had no plans to ask for an extension of the deadline set by the Security Council last spring. The program was always meant to be temporary. It was never meant for forever. And therefore it had to close one day. So its closing, Sevan said.

UN officials say there are about $10 billion worth of goods in the pipeline to be delivered to Iraq. Of that figure, about $7 billion of goods have been approved as priority items. The remaining contracted goods remain under review.

Current funding levels mean there will continue to be distribution of food baskets to most Iraqis into next year. The food baskets include items such as wheat flour, sugar, rice, and lentils. UN international staff is now below 50, from a level of 600 before the 19 August terrorist attack on UN headquarters, which killed a number of senior staff, including chief representative Sergio Vieira de Mello.

But the oil-for-food program can hand over operations to about 4,000 Iraqi staff who have helped to run it before, during, and after the war.

A spokesman for the World Food Program, Trevor Rowe, says more than 900 Iraqis work for the agency and will be taking over a well-functioning system: Its now flowing at the rate of half-a-million tons a month. The country is getting the food that it needs and so its a handover to the Ministry of Trade and the Iraqi Governing Council.

Rowe says goods will continue to be brought in overland through Jordan and Turkey and into the port of Umm Qasr. He says about 43,000 local agents, who run small local distribution centers, will remain part of the food-rationing system.

Theres actually a fairly high degree of confidence that theyll be able to do it because, I mean, the distribution is under control. So the only thing thats going to change is that were using commercial trucking, and so its just a question of maintaining those business relationships, Rowe said.

A U.S. official told RFE/RL that the food-basket system will remain in place until Iraqi authorities are able to set up their own distribution network. He said U.S. officials want to transfer as much of the food-distribution system to Iraqis as possible. After 21 November, Iraqi oil revenues are to be placed in a fund controlled by coalition authorities that is to be used to help rebuild Iraq.

UN Security Council members are negotiating the terms of a resolution that could set a timetable for a handover of power to Iraqis and define a UN role in the political transition. There has been a general welcome for the proposal by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell for Iraqis to adopt a constitution in six months and hold elections in as soon as one year.