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      Oil-for-Food Program Continues As Key Facet of U.S. Policy on Iraq

    By Vernon Loeb
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, November 14, 1998; Page A20

    As the United States rushed military forces to the Persian Gulf yesterday for a possible strike against Iraq, American officials were also among those trying to keep open a conduit for food and medicine under a massive humanitarian program designed to control Iraq's oil exports and relieve the suffering of its 20 million people.

    The United Nations announced that shipments of food and other humanitarian goods into Iraq under the so-called oil-for-food program had been disrupted after a British firm responsible for inspections withdrew from border checkpoints.

    "There are stockpiles of food and medicines inside Iraq, so there is not going to be an immediate shortage," said A. Peter Burleigh, acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "But we will have to see what steps need to be taken."

    The tension between the U.S. threat of military force and American support for humanitarian aid under the oil-for-food program is at the center of U.S. efforts to maintain punishing sanctions against Iraq. President Clinton implied as much in a report on the Iraq crisis that he sent to Congress a week ago. Citing the need for "persistent diplomacy" to contain Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Clinton expressed strong support for the oil-for-food approach.

    Earlier this year, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering described the oil-for-food strategy as "the key" to maintaining international support for economic sanctions -- and, now, military action -- against Iraq.

    "Without an oil-for-food program in place, our options are stark," Pickering told Congress. "Let me be perfectly clear what those options are: watching the Iraqi people starve while Saddam Hussein deliberately refuses to spend Iraq's resources on their welfare, or lifting sanctions prematurely."

    The oil-for-food program has been so successful at maintaining the sanctions regime that it has become a permanent fixture of the international approach to the Iraq crisis. The program has survived mounting criticism from outside the United Nations and the Iraqi government's attempts to use it for such purchases as liposuction machines and hair transplant instruments in the name of "humanitarian" relief.

    Under the program, Iraq is allowed to sell oil at market prices under contracts approved by the United Nations, with all revenue going into a U.N. escrow account. Those funds -- a maximum of $10.5 billion a year, under current rules -- are then used to import food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies through contracts approved by a U.N. committee made up of representatives of all Security Council countries.

    A Security Council member can veto any contract or ask that a contract be put on hold pending further investigation, if it believes the goods are not for legitimate humanitarian purposes.

    For example, said John Mills, an oil-for-food program spokesman, "the liposuction machine will be approved the day after hell freezes over."

    The amount of oil Iraq could sell under the program was increased from $4.2 billion to $10.5 billion in February because of evidence that the program had not been generating enough revenue to meet Iraq's humanitarian needs. Beyond food and medicine, the expanded program has also authorized Iraq for the first time to buy materiel for the rebuilding of its agricultural sector, medical system, water supply and oil fields.

    Conservative critics of the Clinton administration's Iraq policy pounced on the deal, accusing officials of unwittingly undermining the sanctions imposed at the end of the Persian Gulf War by allowing Iraq to sell almost as much oil as it was selling before the war began.

    They pointed to the goods in the shopping lists that Iraq submitted to the United Nations for approval -- color TVs, personal computers, Volvo engines, diet pills -- as proof that Saddam Hussein was trying to abuse the program. They argued that the international organization was incapable of monitoring the imports, making it that much easier for Saddam Hussein to continue his longstanding practice of illegally importing weapons components.

    Meanwhile, Denis Halliday, a former U.N. official who ran the oil-for-food program in Iraq until September, has criticized Clinton's Iraq policy from a different flank, denouncing the economic sanctions as a "totally bankrupt policy."

    Halliday, who resigned his post in protest, noted that 5,000 to 6,000 children continue to die every month in Iraq from malnutrition and disease. He said the oil-for-food program is "underfunded, slow, bureaucratic and costly -- but nevertheless it does make a difference."

    Even though the program has been expanded, humanitarian needs continue to go unmet inside Iraq. Despite the annual oil revenue ceiling of $10.5 billion, actual sales are projected to reach about $6.6 billion a year because of depressed oil prices and Iraq's badly damaged refining capabilities.

    Administration officials insist that the oil-for-food program is well monitored by U.N. officials in Iraq and hardly represents a back-door end to sanctions. They note that it denies Saddam Hussein any control over the country's oil wealth.

    "We are still very committed to maintaining the oil-for-food program," said David C. Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "We are more committed than the Iraqi regime to the welfare of the Iraqi people, and that hasn't changed with this latest situation."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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