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.
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.
US officials refuse to link the no-fly violations with the tougher stance of the UN sanctions committee. But in Iraq, few Western or Iraqi analysts doubt the connection. Security Council Resolution 986, written by the US, permits Iraq to export $2-billion worth of oil every six months - the first drops to legally leave Iraq since the Gulf war. Proceeds are to meet humanitarian food and medical needs, and pay war reparations and UN costs.
Iraq flatly rejected the plan in early 1995, claiming that it would undermine its sovereignty. It finally accepted last fall. As conditions deteriorated, the deal was meant to be "a window of oxygen to help the Iraqis," says Staffan de Mistura, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq.
Delays in the UN aid pipeline, however, have meant that high expectations of a quick influx of food have evaporated. The situation has grown worse as relief agencies - assuming that massive UN aid would meet Iraqi needs - have pulled out.
The stalled contracts aggravate the problem, and senior Iraqi officials quip that the UN plan is really "oil-for-nothing."
"This is a significant setback," says Mr. de Mistura of the delays.
The misery index in Iraq has multiplied since UN sanctions were first imposed in 1991. Official Iraqi figures put the number of child deaths at 4,500 a month, mostly from cases complicated by lack of food. Diplomats say the toll may be closer to 3,000, though a 1995 UN report found that some Iraqi figures may be only half the real total.
To fill the gap, the International Committee of the Red Cross made an emergency shipment of $800,000 in medical supplies last December. A further $200,000 is due in mid-May. Baghdad also released 40,000 tons of food from its previously unknown "strategic reserve," to ensure that some food could be distributed in April.
"It's obvious this country is suffering," says ICRC head Manuel Bessler. In the hard-hit south "people motion with their hands to their mouths. They are hungry."
The magnitude of the crisis has been an easy propaganda tool for Iraq, which complains that its people are the target of Western - and especially American - revenge after the Gulf war.
The US has not hesitated to act against Iraq in the past. Last year, the US launched missile attacks at military targets in southern Iraq to retaliate for Iraqi action against Kurds in Iraq's north.
For Iraqi officials, the latest contract delays fit easily into a US-against-Iraq conspiracy theory that they date back to 1988, before the Gulf war.
"There is money available, and other contracts with similar specifications, sizes and prices have been approved. So why not now?" asks Mahdi Mohamed Saleh, the minister of trade. Even as a civilian, he wears a military uniform because Iraq still considers itself at war with coalition forces.
Some sources, however, are not convinced that the contract delays are deliberate, or even attributable to Washington. "We don't know if the contracts were really blocked by the US," says a diplomat here. "Very often, when Iraq delays or procrastinates, it blames the US. It's their policy."
Still, almost five months after Iraq's oil entered the market, Iraqi officials wonder why only 122 humanitarian contracts out of 217 have been approved. More than 500 have been submitted. "All these contracts can be examined in one week," says Dr. Saleh. "They do delay, but we've been waiting six years so it is nothing to us."