FOR five years, Evergreen Helicopters Inc. has been flying United Nations peacekeepers around some of the world's hot spots. Now the McMinnville, Ore.-based company is at the center of a dispute between Washington and the UN over policy toward Iraq.
The big question is who's in charge: the UN or Saddam Hussein? US officials say the UN is letting the Iraqi leader dictate the operational terms for a UN monitoring force. The UN, which maintains the force to watch for new Iraqi military threats against Kuwait, denies the charge. The UN troops were deployed along the Iraq-Kuwait border after the 1991 Gulf war.
Keeping Saddam bottled up militarily, politically, and economically is a key US foreign policy goal. But other major powers, including France and Russia, have called for the UN to ease Iraq's international isolation. Saddam's success in influencing UN decisions could undermine US's goal.
The US-UN row began earlier this month when the UN decided to terminate Evergreen's contract to provide helicopter services to the UN Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM). The two-year, $4 million contract began Dec. 1. The UN says it has no choice but to cancel it because Iraq has refused to renew the visas of the two Evergreen pilots flying for UNIKOM. Their visas expire on June 30.
''Iraq has turned down the UN request to reconsider this decision,'' says Yasuhiro Ueki, a UN spokesman. ''Evergreen will thus be unable to continue to provide helicopter transport and the UN is now trying to make other arrangements.'' Mr. Ueki says Evergreen's contract to transport UNIKOM officers on both sides of the Iraq-Kuwait border requires it to obtain Iraqi visas for its pilots.
But US officials and Evergreen say the visas are not needed. UN rules and resolutions and Iraq's original acceptance of UNIKOM's mission give UN personnel unrestricted access to Iraqi territory. Evergreen says it obtained the pilots' existing visas simply to accommodate Iraq and that its UN contract does not specifically require them.
Beyond the legal tangle, US officials say Evergreen's contract cancellation indicates the UN is acquiescing to Iraqi harassment of a US firm in exchange for good relations with Saddam.
''The United Nations should not put itself in a situation in which Iraq can dictate the terms of its presence,'' says a senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. ''The UN force is there to monitor Iraqi action. You don't normally ask the person you are watching to set the rules of the game.''
At the request of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, the US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, intervened in the matter last Wednesday at a meeting with UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. But Mrs. Albright failed to save the Evergreen contract, the US official says.
Says Pat Costello of Evergreen's Washington office: ''We are wondering who is basically running this thing, the UN or the Iraqis.''
US concerns of UN appeasement appear to be bolstered by a Feb. 28 letter sent to Mr. Boutros-Ghali by the Iraqi ambassador to the UN, Nizer Hamdoon.
In the letter, Mr. Hamdoon said his government wanted Evergreen's contract canceled because the firm had in other UN peacekeeping operations covertly worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. Evergreen denies CIA links.
Hamdoon then made a veiled threat that unless the UN terminated Evergreen's contract, Baghdad would stop cooperating with UNIKOM. ''We renew our request for your intervention with a view to having the question of the contract with this company reconsidered in order to ensure a continuation of the cooperation that presently obtains between UNIKOM and the Iraqi government,'' Hamdoon wrote in the letter, which was obtained by the Monitor.
Evergreen, which is the only US contractor with UNIKOM and has flown helicopters for the UN peacekeeping missions in Angola and Bosnia-Herzegovina, is pursuing an aggressive campaign in Washington to fight the UN decision. Its supporters include Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R) of New York, the chairman of the House International Relations Committee and an ardent UN critic.
Mr. Gilman wrote to Mr. Christopher on May 8 to demand that he intervene to prevent ''Iraq from subverting control of UNIKOM.''
Gilman implied that the administration's failure to resolve the matter could endanger congressional approval of future US contributions to UN peacekeeping operations.
''This issue can only make it more difficult to convince our colleagues that the funding provisions for peacekeeping are one of the highest priorities for US foreign policy interests,'' he said.
The US official says that the administration will pursue the matter and is ''not going to let up on this.'' Iraq ''saw an opportunity to create a problem,'' he says. ''This is just harassment, their way of getting back at something labeled 'American.'''