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POLITICS-IRAQ: Annan Blasts Holds on Humanitarian Aid

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 26 1999 (IPS) - The UN Security Council must end the delay on humanitarian goods entering Iraq to end the suffering there, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Tuesday.

Annan again criticised the number of ‘holds’ on the delivery of food, medicine and other goods that Iraq imports and pays for with oil revenue under the UN-approved special exemption from the nine- year-old sanctions regime against Baghdad.

Most of the delays have been instigated by the United States and Britain, the two countries who most strongly favour continued sanctions against Iraq, Annan said.

“In some instances, goods which have been shipped as part of the (humanitarian) package have to sit and wait because part of (the package) has either been withheld or is not in,” Annan told reporters Tuesday.

“I want to see the United Nations run a smooth humanitarian operation in Iraq, with a capacity to deliver all that the Council has approved,” he added.

Yet Benon Sevan, executive director of the UN Office of the Iraq Programme, warned the Council in a letter this week that the number of holds placed on Iraqi imports actually has increased in recent months.

Since mid-August, Sevan reported, the number of holds on Iraqi applications rose from 475 – on goods worth a total of some 500 million dollars – to 572, on goods worth about 700 million dollars.

There was a particularly high level of holds on requests dealing with oil, telecommunications, electricity, water, sanitation and spare parts requests, he said.

In the telecommunications sector, Sevan reported, 100 percent of requested imports have been subjected to holds by the Council. In addition, the time taken by the Council to review holds had increased to an average of 34 days.

The delays had been significant, said Hans van Sponeck, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq. In some cases they prevented goods from being distributed effectively – such as medicines that were delivered but not the necessary syringes.

“It is a complex picture that has worsened in recent months,” he said.

US officials have placed much of the blame on the Iraqi government, which it contended was not doing enough to relieve humanitarian suffering with the money it has obtained by the UN “oil-for-food” exemption.

(Iraq, under the current phase of the programme, can sell some six billion dollars of oil in a six-month period to pay for food, medicine and infrastructure repair.)

US State Department spokesman James Rubin alleged this week that Iraq even had exported basic foodstuffs in recent months, contradicting Baghdad’s claims that the holds had hurt food distribution.

Van Sponeck, however, doubted the US allegations, arguing that his programme employed 170 monitors to ensure that Iraq’s humanitarian imports were distributed properly. “I challenge anybody to prove us wrong when I say that items go where they belong,” he said.

UN officials stressed that both sides shared some blame for the problems of delays – the United States and its backers for increasingly placing holds on Iraqi applications, and Iraq for not providing enough information about some of its import requests.

Rather than trying to blame either side, van Sponeck said, the United Nations needed both to work to expedite the process of humanitarian distribution. For Iraq, he said, that would mean providing more technical information about its import requests. Lack of such information had been the most common reason for the holds, accounting for almost half of the applications placed on hold, Sevan said.

US and British officials have declared some Iraqi requests were unnecessary – such as a recent one for musical doorbells – while others might have “dual use,” in which they could potentially be used for military programmes.

“We try to argue that those parties that are wishing to have an item, and those who are ready to supply it, must be as accurate in their submissions as possible,” van Sponeck said.

The dispute over holds came at a time when the Security Council was deadlocked on the larger question of the sanctions regime.

Of the Council’s five veto-holding permanent members, the United States and Britain supported import sanctions, while Russia, France and China want to see all sanctions lifted in exchange for the resumption of now-stalled UN weapons monitoring efforts.

UN efforts to break the deadlock in the Council, so far, had failed to bridge the gap.

Iraq has stated it would refuse any weapons monitoring efforts until the sanctions regime, put in place after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, was lifted.

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