Bombing Iraq Could Cut Off UN Food Aid
UN leader wants the oil-for-food program expanded. But a US strike would disrupt it.
United Nations and international relief officials are warning that the fragile humanitarian aid effort in Iraq will likely be among the first casualties of any sustained American bombing campaign.Skip to next paragraph
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After seven years of the most stringent sanctions ever applied by the UN, Iraq is deemed to be in a precarious humanitarian situation. If United States forces building in the Persian Gulf for "Operation Desert Thunder" strike the country to enforce cooperation with UN weapons inspectors, peripheral damage to the humanitarian relief system could cause it to collapse.
"The impact on food supplies for people could be catastrophic," says one senior UN official.
"It's obvious that [the UN mandated oil-for-food program] can only deal with one crisis at a time, and that crisis is the effect of sanctions," adds a Western relief worker here. "I'm afraid that military strikes could close it down."
The oil-for-food deal is based on UN Security Council Resolution 986, which allows Iraq to sell $2 billion worth of oil every six months. The tightly controlled proceeds pay for humanitarian supplies, compensate victims of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and finance the work of UN weapons inspectors.
Iraq accepted the program in December 1996. Delays have lowered the expectations of ordinary Iraqis, who welcome the food ration but have seen little improvement in health conditions.
To ease the strain of the sanctions - which the US says are aimed at the regime of President Saddam Hussein, not the Iraqi people - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed last month to more than double the program, enabling Iraq to sell $5.2 billion worth of oil every six months.
Iraq has so far rejected the deal, though UN officials say they are hopeful that an agreement will be reached. The proposed increase comes close to the amount of oil Iraq exported before the Gulf War. But Iraqi authorities charge the result would be complete UN control of Iraq's economy.
At the same time the Security Council struggles to cope with the humanitarian crisis, two of its members - the US and Britain - seek support for "substantial" attacks on Iraq for barring access of UN weapons inspectors to sensitive sites.
The impact of such tension on the flow of humanitarian supplies has been felt in Iraq before. During a standoff in November, when Iraq dismissed all American weapons inspectors, three Australian ships carrying 30,000 tons of food each were held up for several days. "In the system we run, a few days' delay is enough not to fill the food basket," says Denis Halliday, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq.
Most of the problems with distributing food have been ironed out. The UN has brought four metric tons of food to Iraq - enough to fill 250,000 trucks and trailers.
But on the health side, numerous delays have made supply uncertain at best.
The US and Britain have been most active in blocking contracts in the UN sanctions committee, watching for "dual use" items that also can be used for illicit weapons programs.
Part of the reason, one official says, is that the US and Britain "do their homework." Approval for 100 ambulances was delayed for months, for example, because it was noted that they could be used to transport troops. And a relief agency trying to bring linen for sheets inexplicably was forced by the sanctions committee to slice them into sheet-size pieces outside Iraq before delivery.
"We all discovered how tortuous this process can be," says Eric Falt, the UN humanitarian spokesman in Baghdad.
Iraqis say that health conditions have become markedly worse since the start of the oil-for-food deal last year. International relief agencies apparently pulled out, expecting a surplus of fresh UN supplies.
"Oil for food has not met our most urgent needs," says Samir Kalander, director of the Saddam Central Teaching Hospital for Children in Baghdad. "It's not enough, and it's not constant."