Did US Slow Food to Iraq After No-Fly Snub?
Iraq's overflights defied US. Now it cites aid slowdown. Washington denies.
On paper at the United Nations, the oil-for-food deal to ease Iraq's suffering under post-Gulf war sanctions looks simple: Iraq is allowed to export some oil to pay for much- needed food and medicine.Skip to next paragraph
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But nearly five months after President Saddam Hussein pushed the button that began the flow of oil, Iraqis are waiting for aid - and officials now accuse the US of turning their humanitarian needs into a political football after Iraq flew Muslim pilgrims through the no-fly zone.
Iraq blames the US for "serious and deliberate delays" that have recently stalled or blocked more than 60 humanitarian contracts. And at the UN, a spokesman says "it seems that the US is involved" in aid delays, adding that the US is also "thought to be involved" in inflating the dollar value of both US and non-US goods going to Iraq.
It would not be an unprecedented move. President Clinton last week hinted North Korea, too, might get more food aid if it meet US concerns, despite US policy not to link humanitarian aid to politics.
A State Department official denies any aid slowdown to Iraq.
"There isn't a deliberate effort to contain the delivery of aid that I'm aware of," says the US official.
The UN could not confirm if the delays were due to "political or technical" reasons. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has reportedly promised Iraq that he will look into the the matter.
Iraq has made plain its official view. "It is quite clear to all members of the Security Council that the Americans are the only ones who are blocking the contracts," Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said in an interview in Baghdad. "This is a political attitude on the side of the American administration ... to use it as a political instrument against Iraq." That view is echoed by the populace.
In Iraq - once one of the wealthiest and most powerful Arab nations, uniquely rich in both oil and water - there is a constant refrain: "Our oil is out, but we have received nothing," says Rial Nasrawi, a radiologist who these days cuts X-ray films into four pieces to make meager supplies last.
The dispute centers on Iraq's recent defiance of a no-fly zone that has been in place since a US-led military coalition forced Iraqi troops to withdraw from Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf war.
On April 9, Iraq defied the US by sending an plane of devout Muslims on a Haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Iraq last week again defied the ban with helicopters by collecting the pilgrims at the border - leading President Clinton to remark that Iraq had gotten away with "a high-wire act of political provocation." Washington sought a tough UN Security Council response, but was rebuffed.
As Iraq celebrated this "victory" over coalition forces, US officials fumed. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said that, while unarmed civilians would never be shot down, no-fly enforcement remained policy, and that Iraq should not "test the resolve" of the US.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said the US would "respond appropriately" to any violations.
The squeeze appears to have been applied in the UN sanctions committee, where a long list of humanitarian contracts meant for approval have been delayed.