Iraqi deal of food, oil satisfies no one Many people suffer while governments jockey for advantage

December 11, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Bureaucratic logjams, Iraqi foot-dragging and deep-seated distrust hobble the United Nations' oil-for-food deal with Iraq, prolonging the suffering of millions.

A year after Iraq was allowed to begin selling limited amounts of oil to buy food and medicine, no one is satisfied -- not U.N. officials, who say it fails to eradicate the causes of Iraqi hunger and disease; not the Iraqi people, who complain of inadequate and poor quality supplies; and not the United States, which is widely blamed in the Arab world for Iraqi misery from sanctions imposed for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

"It's really a mess," says Johan Garde, the top Middle East official for the Catholic aid group Caritas International.

It's also a propaganda windfall for Iraq's campaign to break free of the sanctions and again become a major oil exporter permitted to buy whatever it wants.

In one recent instance, the Iraqi government paraded 100 small coffins through the capital city, Baghdad, atop cars and taxis -- coffins said to contain the bodies of children who died as a result of the punishing economic sanctions that the oil-for-food program was meant to relieve.

This funeral may have been staged, but Iraqis' hunger and disease are real, aid officials say.

A third of children under age 5 in central and southern Iraq -- nearly 1 million -- remain malnourished, according to the U.N. children's aid agency, UNICEF.

Counting older children and adults, "We're talking about quite a few million people who are malnourished," Philippe Heffinck, UNICEF's representative in Baghdad, said in a telephone interview.

Although some American analysts are skeptical of the U.N. figures because they are derived from Iraqi government surveys, U.S. officials acknowledge that widespread hunger and health problems persist.

"We take all these problems very seriously and believe these must be addressed on an urgent basis," Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council last week.

The oil-for-food idea had great appeal to the West when the U.N. Security Council approved it in 1995, four years after the end of the Persian Gulf war: Ease the pain of economic sanctions on average Iraqis by supplying them with essential food and medicine -- and make Baghdad pay for it by selling some of its abundant oil.

The program permits Iraq to sell $2 billion worth of oil every six months. Of the proceeds, $1.3 billion go for food and medicine and the rest for war reparations to Kuwaitis and others, and U.N. costs.

From the outset, the program has been a source of tension between Iraq and U.N. officials over which side would control it. Lengthy talks occurred before it got under way, during which U.N. officials yielded some authority to Iraq.

The United States and its allies want to make sure that all the money goes to meet strictly humanitarian needs and doesn't end up filling the pockets of President Saddam Hussein and the small elite that surrounds him.

But the Iraqi regime benefited anyway, because the program freed up money Baghdad had previously spent on its own nationwide food rations program.

"This was originally intended to supplement [Iraqi food rations]," a U.S. official said. With both the rations and the new money, there should have been enough food.

Instead, the official said, "The Iraqi government decided to use [the U.N. program] exclusively, taking the money it used to spend on rations and using it for other purposes."

Those other purposes evidently include the maintenance of scores of palaces for Hussein and his inner circle, plus a powerful security network. This week, Hussein unveiled a scale model of what he called the world's largest mosque, able to accommodate 30,000 worshipers.

Nizar Hamdoon, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, said U.N. officials understood when the oil-for-food program started that it would replace the previous ration system. It was supposed "to cover all the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people on basic stuff," he said in a telephone interview.

Simple in concept, the program proved complex in practice. A U.N. sanctions committee had to scrutinize every Iraqi contract to make sure Hussein's government didn't try to buy luxury or military goods barred by sanctions.

Purchases were further held up by Iraqi efforts to gain greater control over the program. Deliveries from as far away as Vietnam, the source of rice, and Australia, the source of wheat, added more delays.

"We had problems of inexperience, problems of bureaucracy and problems of a lack of confidence" in relations between Iraq and the United Nations, said Antonio Monteiro, the Portuguese ambassador to the United Nations who has chaired the sanctions committee for the past year.

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