AS American, British, and French soldiers began rushing aid to displaced Iraqi civilians last week, the UN indefinitely delayed responding to an Iraqi request to sell oil for the purchase of $1 billion worth of food and basic commodities. This apparent contradiction in international dealings with Iraq is part of a tangle of political and humanitarian considerations complicating the postwar situation.
The Iraqi request took Western members of the UN Security Council by surprise, leaving them wondering how a country described only a month ago as being "relegated to the pre-industrial age" could export $1 billion worth of petroleum.
"Initial inspections [in Iraq] are said to show that necessary repairs to begin power generation and oil refining at minimal levels may take anywhere from four to 13 months," UN Under-secretary General Martti Ahtisaari reported March 20.
But the Iraqi president's visit to an oil refinery on the outskirts of Baghdad last week would suggest otherwise. According to Iraqi diplomats at the UN, Saddam Hussein was given assurances by the oil facility's managers that production capacity would be largely restored by April 19. Less than three months ago, this same refinery was shown on CNN bursting into a spectacular fireball during coalition bombing.
Iraqi diplomats say they are confident that Turkey - and perhaps even Syria - would agree, with UN approval, to reopen its pipeline for transshipment of Iraqi oil.
Members of the UN sanctions committee were reluctant to let up any of the pressure on Iraq and said that they want to know at what price and to which countries Iraq would sell its oil. The United States also reportedly indicated that any Iraqi oil export would have to be taxed to pay for damages resulting from Iraq's aggression against Kuwait. The percentage to be charged - and the special commission to oversee reparations - will be decided by May 18, according to Security Council Resolution 687.
Adopted April 3, Resolution 687 has set off the largest operation in UN history. UN military observers sent to demarcate and patrol the Iraq-Kuwait border will arrive on the spot later this week. For the first time, troops from the five permanent members of the Council (the US, Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China) will participate.
The resolution also demands the destruction of all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and formalization of the cease-fire.
Iraq submitted a document on Thursday, declaring it had no biological or nuclear weapons and that Iraq would be willing to place nuclear-weapons-usable material under control of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
An accompanying list, however, claimed that Iraq had no such material - and that the country's nuclear capability could be used only for peaceful purposes. The document seemed to express reluctance to surrender the material for removal from Iraq, as Resolution 687 requires, and did not specify location or amounts.
The list confirms Iraq's capability of delivering chemical weapons by missiles and by artillery and mortar shells, as well as by aerial bombs. It says that much of Iraq's chemical-weapons production capability was destroyed by coalition bombing.
The Muthanna State Establishment, 44 miles west of Baghdad, however, still houses 75 tons of Sarin, 500 tons of Tabun, plus 150 tons of intermediary product, and 280 tons of mustard gas, the document says. It also reports that, among other missiles and warheads still intact, 30 are Al-Hussein missiles, with a range of 400 miles, loaded with chemical warheads, and 336 are binary-system aerial bombs filled with Sarin. A State Department spokesman later indicated that the US was dissatisfied with the Iraqi list, and would press for an on-site inspection.
Meanwhile, reports from the UN and from the International Committee of the Red Cross corroborate Iraq's claim that its food supply is dwindling and that there is widespread suffering. But it is unclear why Iraq is not calling in quantities of foodstuffs stored in warehouses around the world, which it bought before sanctions took effect.
Mr. Ahtisaari told the sanctions committee a month ago that these commodities were available for quick delivery.
An agreement signed last Thursday in Baghdad gives the UN unprecedented access to all parts of Iraq for humanitarian relief. But how the UN operation will function next to the Western military effort, announced by President Bush last week, is still uncertain. The US plan will establish safe areas for Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq.
Andrew Natsios, an official with the US Agency for International Development, said Saturday that there would be three phases:
The first two weeks would be an exclusively military operation.
For the next 30 to 60 days, the military would facilitate the entry of private civilian US and European relief organizations.
Then the UN would take full charge.
UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar has said, however, that it would be necessary to get Security Council approval for the transfer. There has been resistance to the idea in the Council, on the grounds that it may infringe on Iraq's sovereignty.
The argument may soon be academic, with thousands of international relief workers and hundreds of UN disarmament inspectors tramping over the country.