WASHINGTON - Struggling to move beyond its bitter division over war in Iraq, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously yesterday to give Secretary-General Kofi Annan control over a multibillion-dollar program to provide food and humanitarian relief to the Iraqi population.
With money from past Iraqi oil sales, Annan now has the power to restart a system to distribute food from 44,000 relief centers across Iraq that in recent years have been the main source of food for 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.
But at a time when American and British forces are having to fight off Iraq irregulars to keep open their own supply lines of food, fuel and ammunition, Annan faces a huge and delicate logistical burden.
"It's a very fragile situation at the best of times," a U.N. official said. "If the coalition forces can't get their supplies in ... how is it for everybody else? It points to some obvious problems."
The 15-0 vote marked a return to some semblance of the unity that was shattered three weeks ago by the council's refusal to authorize U.S. and British forces to launch a war against Iraq.
After veto threats by France and Russia and wavering by six other countries, the U.S.-led coalition began its war without explicit international backing.
German U.N. ambassador Gunter Pleuger, credited by U.S. officials with brokering the resolution approved yesterday, hailed "the spirit of compromise" it reflected. Germany has been a leading opponent of the war in Iraq.
Echoes of the council's bitter debate over the war had surfaced in negotiations on the resolution. Russia and Syria worked to make sure that it would not serve to legitimize the war or the ensuing occupation, or anticipate a change in the Iraqi government.
"On the basis of this humanitarian text, the Security Council has recovered its unity, and that is an important result as well," said Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, U.N. envoy from France, another opponent of the war.
Tough issues avoided
But the vote also exposed what will likely be a diminished Security Council role in the near future, dealing with relatively noncontroversial humanitarian issues and not divisive questions of war and peace.
The resolution gives Annan control for the next 45 days over the money and contracts that already exist from the oil-for-food program, set up in 1996 after the council voted to relax the tight economic sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. The council set a time limit so it could assess how the program gets under way and decide whether to continue it.
Under the oil-for-food program, the United Nations controlled the proceeds of Iraqi oil sales and screened contracts negotiated by Iraq for imports of food and civilian goods to make sure Iraq was not importing military supplies. The program was suspended when the war began.
Some $10 billion worth of food and civilian goods are already in the pipeline, and Annan has the power to pick which items are most urgently needed and perhaps renegotiate contracts.
He can also tap $2.8 billion in unspent oil proceeds. This relieves the United States of a potential burden, which White House budget director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. noted yesterday in a meeting with reporters.
"It's fully expected that [oil-for-food money] would be back in play fairly soon," Daniels said.
One of Annan's first risky decisions will be when to send back the 900 U.N. employees who previously monitored the program, which also employed about 3,400 Iraqis in one of the world's most extensive food-distribution systems. Annan ordered U.N. staffers to leave Iraq before the war began.
"We will need to move very quickly," Annan said yesterday. "As far as resuming the operations on the ground, obviously the military situation on the ground will dictate how quickly we get back." A U.N. official said, however, that Annan would not wait for hostilities to end before resuming the program.
From previous distributions, Iraqi families are believed to have about a five-week stockpile of basic foodstuffs such as flour, cooking oil, beans and rice, but parts of the country are reported to be in desperate need of fresh water. Before the war, the program shipped in 570,000 metric tons of food every month.
Annan will also need to coordinate with American and British commanders as they gain control over sections of the country and with Iraqi authorities where Saddam Hussein's regime is still in control.
How the regime will respond is unclear; the resolution deprives Iraq of the power to negotiate purchases, a power that it had exploited in recent years to curry favor with some countries and punish others. The resolution does not deal with future oil sales and does not give Annan power to sign oil contracts.
Roberta Cohen, a Brookings Institution expert on humanitarian problems, said Hussein's regime would likely resume cooperating with the U.N. food distribution "if they have even the smallest interest in retaining popular support."
But she also said the United States has a "tremendous responsibility," as the leading occupying power, to protect the aid shipments.
"I think the troops will have to be involved in protecting the convoys. I hope there are enough of them," she said.
According to the resolution, "the occupying power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population."
The United Nations has been running the program in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, but Hussein's regime has been in charge in central and southern Iraq. One result has been reported discrimination by the Sunni-dominated regime in doling out food in Shia areas in the south.
In addition, the regime has chosen to import food from as far away as Australia rather than buy it from farmers in the autonomous Kurdish region, Cohen said. This total dependence on imports has caused Iraq's agricultural industry to wither.
Sun staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.