Sanctions altered to aid Iraqi civilians

U.N. security panel to keep control of oil revenues

May 15, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The United Nations Security Council, in a move that the Bush administration hopes will keep Iraq from playing the role of victim, overhauled and streamlined yesterday the stiff economic sanctions imposed on Baghdad 12 years ago, and will now allow Iraq to import a wide array of civilian goods.

The unanimous decision allows the council to maintain its control over Iraq's oil revenues while showing that it is trying to ease the misery that years of sanctions caused the country's citizens. The vote also showed a new level of cooperation between the United States and Russia, which some U.S. officials hope can be parlayed into tacit support from Moscow for future military action to topple Saddam Hussein.

The vote, which drew reluctant backing from Syria, the Arab world's representative on the council, shored up international support for keeping pressure on Iraq to readmit U.N. inspectors, who would search for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. It comes as the Bush administration shows uncertainty about how to carry out the president's ultimate goal of overthrowing Hussein.

The sanctions overhaul, approved in a resolution by a vote of 15-0, allows Iraq to import a wide variety of civilian goods while maintaining an arms embargo. U.N. technicians will scrutinize contracts to see if any goods ordered could be put to military use. If so, the council's sanctions committee would have to approve or reject them.

The United Nations first imposed sanctions on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait, in August 1990. Over the years, Iraq has blamed the sanctions for the suffering of its population, saying they had blocked the purchase of food and medicines and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The Iraqi sanctions have helped inflame public opinion in the Arab world against the United States.

The United Nations substantially eased the sanctions in 1996. It allowed Iraq to resume selling oil on the world market and use the proceeds, under U.N. controls, to import food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.

That system continued to draw complaints from Iraq because the United States placed lengthy holds on numerous Iraqi contracts. All told, the United States has blocked more than $5 billion worth of Iraqi imports.

The overhauled sanctions allow most import contracts to be approved within 20 days. The exceptions are those goods on a 300-page "goods review list" of items that could have a military purpose, including high-technology products, communications equipment and trucks.

John D. Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the simplified export-control system focuses "more on products and services that could contribute to a weapons-of-mass destruction program."

The U.N. inspections agency for Iraq, known as UNMOVIC, will check the contracts to see if they are subject to review. If they are, the contracts will be forwarded to the Sanctions Committee, which would have 10 days to approve or deny them.

"The fundamental element for the U.S. is control of Iraqi oil revenues," said Charles Duelfer, former deputy chief of the U.N. inspections agency. If Baghdad regained control over oil revenue, it would have much more money to spend in circumventing the arms embargo.

U.S. officials hope the measures adopted yesterday shift attention from the sanctions and put the spotlight on whether Iraq is trying to improve its people's well-being. If the people's condition fails to improve, they say, this will be a further argument for Bush's policy of "regime change."

"For this new system to be effective in bringing help to the people of Iraq, there must be a real commitment by the government of Iraq to the same goal," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "Now Iraq's government has an opportunity to prove that it seeks the same benefits for all its citizens."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose country is the strongest U.S. ally on the Security Council, said the council action "removes Saddam's spurious excuses for the suffering he inflicts on the Iraqi people and puts more pressure on the regime."

But Mohammad Al-Douri, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, criticized the goods-review list, saying it would bar the import of agricultural and other basic equipment and slow Iraq's economic development.

"This is a new harassment on the Iraqi people," he said.

The vote yesterday was the first time in several years that the council has acted unanimously on a significant resolution involving Iraq. The late 1990s brought a steady erosion of U.N. pressure on Iraq as Russia, France and other nations with business prospects in the oil-rich nation joined in seeking an end to sanctions.

Syria was the last country to agree to the new resolution. Diplomats said Syria, which the United States believes is flouting the existing sanctions by importing oil from Iraq, did not want to be tagged as Iraq's only friend on the council.

A European diplomat said the consensus shows those in Washington who are skeptical of the United Nations that "the Security Council can be a credible and useful mechanism to get things done on Iraq." The vote yesterday, the diplomat added, provides a "unified base to get on to the next issue" - the council's demand that Iraq admit weapons inspectors, whom it has barred for three years.

But Richard Perle, a leading voice among Washington hawks who are determined to oust Hussein, was not impressed by the U.N. vote, calling the new import system for Iraq "trivial." He said it would have "no bearing ... whatsoever" on efforts to topple the Baghdad regime. Whether Iraq allows its people to continue suffering despite the relaxed sanctions is a side issue, he said. "The reason why the regime has to go is that it's a threat to the United States."

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