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POLITICS-UN: US, Britain Want UN Chief in Iraq Sacked

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 2 1999 (IPS) - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was resisting pressure from the United States and Britain to oust his humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, UN officials said Tuesday.

News of the push to remove von Sponeck appeared earlier in the London Financial Times. Von Sponeck, a German diplomat, had become too critical of sanctions against Iraq for London and Washington’s liking, according to the newspaper.

Annan, however, had asked Von Sponeck to stay on in his post for another year, UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said Tuesday.

“There were similar complaints about his predecessor, and the secretary-general feels there would be similar complaints about his successor,” Eckhard said. “It comes with the territory.”

Von Sponeck’s predecessor, Irish diplomat Denis Halliday, left one year ago after US and British officials complained about his increasing opposition to the effects of the nine-year-old sanctions regime. He then became a leading critic of UN sanctions.

Although von Sponeck was believed to have a less combative stance than Halliday, he also has come under fire for suggesting that sanctions had hurt the Iraqi people.

“The humanitarian coordinator has to be concerned about the people he’s there to serve,” Eckhard said. “It becomes a very fine line for any humanitarian coordinator to walk.”

Last week during a scheduled trip to UN headquarters, von Sponeck said that even a special “oil-for-food” programme – that currently allowed Iraq to export one billion dollars of oil each month to pay for humanitarian goods – had suffered because of holds placed on Iraqi imports by Washington and London.

In recent months the two countries had stalled 572 Iraqi import applications worth some 700 million dollars, according to the United Nations.

Even without the holds, the oil-for-food programme would not be able to restore Iraqis to their living standards prior to the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Persian Gulf War and UN sanctions, von Sponeck said.

Even if the sanctions exemptions were to allow Baghdad to sell one billion dollars of oil each month, he said, that still would provide only some 550 dollars for each of Iraq’s more than 23 million people.

In a country where the per capita income before 1990 had been more than 3,000 dollars, that represented only a fraction, he said.

Von Sponeck’s assertions struck Washington and London as more critical of sanctions than of the Iraqi government, which they blamed for the deterioration of Iraqi living standards.

British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock placed the blame on Baghdad, saying that of 82 holds Britain has placed on Iraqi applications, 62 were because the Iraqi government had not provided sufficient information on its import requests. (Eighteen holds were placed on items that could have “dual uses” that included military applications, while two were for items that Britain deemed to fall under an illegal oil programme.)

US Ambassador Peter Burleigh said Iraq’s humanitarian appeals needed to be examined carefully because that government intended to “maintain, and even rebuild, its weapons of mass destruction.”

According to UN Security Council resolutions, sanctions will not be lifted until Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction have been eliminated and that effort has been verified by UN monitors. With UN monitors kept out of Iraq since US and British planes attacked Iraq last December, such verification is months, if not years, away.

The Security Council had wanted the oil-for-food deal to fill the gap by allowing Baghdad, under strict UN monitoring, to provide food, medicine and even some rebuilding of infrastructure to take place despite sanctions.

Von Sponeck and Annan warned last month, more than 10 percent of the aid Iraq has tried to import has been held up – mostly by the two nations that strongly support continued sanctions.

The US and British complaints against von Sponeck followed sustained criticism of another special UN envoy to Baghdad, Indian diplomat Prakash Shah, whom both governments also believed was too critical of the sanctions regime.

Shah returned to New Delhi after the expulsion of the weapons monitors reduced his duties in Baghdad.

Yet the United States has also been criticised by other nations in the Security Council for supporting sanctions while at the same time openly encouraging Iraqi dissidents who seek to overthrow President Saddam Hussein.

On Monday, several dissidents groups including in the Iraqi National Congress concluded a four-day meeting in New York to iron out differences and pledge a united front against Hussein.

Senior US officials, including Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering and David Scheffer, ambassador-at-large for war crimes, met the dissident delegates to encourage them to build greater unity.

Delegates present at the talks said later, however, that many issues remained outstanding and that several groups – including some Shi’a Muslims and Kurdish dissidents – did not even participate.

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