The United States and the United Nations are lashing out at each other for failing to do enough to relieve the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan accused the United States of using its muscle on a U.N. sanctions committee to put indefinite "holds" on more than $500 million in humanitarian goods that Iraq would like to buy.
U.S. officials said the goods that Iraq asked to import range from the frivolous--such as 100,000 musical doorbells--to the frightening, including glass-lined stainless steel pipes that could be used in the production of chemical weapons. "None of these holds are for food or medicines," one official said.
The tensions reflect Annan's frustration with Washington's policy of seeking to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and its refusal to ease economic sanctions, imposed nine years ago in response to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. A recent survey by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) found that Iraqi children are dying at twice the rate they did before the sanctions.
Last month, Annan issued a plea to President Clinton to allow greater humanitarian relief to Iraq and to be flexible in negotiations over the future of U.N. policy in Iraq, which is deadlocked between countries that want to ease sanctions--particularly Russia and France--and the United States and Britain.
The United States "is disrupting the operation" of the U.N. oil-for-food program, which allows Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil and spend the proceeds on humanitarian needs, Annan said in an interview. "I think one should be transparent and not withhold some of these items unreasonably because it undermines our professed desire to help alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people."
The United States and Britain said they have shown flexibility in allowing Baghdad to use about $900 million of oil revenue to rebuild its oil industry, instead of spending it on food and medicine.
Today, however, U.S. and British delegates will open a campaign in the Security Council to block a request by Annan to allow Iraq to spend an additional $300 million to repair its petroleum industry infrastructure, according to diplomats.
The dispute centers on the 1996 oil-for-food deal that permits Baghdad to sell $5.2 billion of oil every six months to pay for food, medicine and other items that improve the health of Iraqis. Until recently, low world oil prices and Iraq's aging infrastructure have prevented it from exporting that much.
With higher prices, the United States and Britain have agreed to allow Baghdad to sell $7 billion of oil during the current six-month period to make up for past shortfalls. But they will demand that Iraq spend the additional money on food and medicine, not on its commercial infrastructure.
Baghdad's latest spending proposal, which includes the musical doorbells for new housing, falls short of what the United Nations has said the country should spend to meet its people's nutritional needs. Iraq has proposed to buy $1.3 billion of food, about $234 million less than recommended by the United Nations in February 1998. And Iraq has projected an expenditure of $290 million on medicine, $480 million less than the United Nations recommended.
At the proposed level, Iraq would aim to provide 2,200 calories per person daily, 263 less than the U.N. suggestion. "We want to know what's going on," said a diplomat who supports the U.S.-British position. "The United Nations is conspiring with Iraq to make sanctions less effective, while limiting the available relief."
The dispute comes less than two weeks after the United States announced that Kuwait had seized three Iraqi cargo ships illegally exporting dates, lentils and jute seed and cloves used in animal feed. The United Nations has previously complained to Baghdad that it was not purchasing sufficient amounts of high-protein items, including lentils.
"Despite their claim of scarce foodstuffs, they are earning hard currency exporting foodstuffs," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said on Oct. 15. "Iraq refuses to use the funds available to it in order to buy food under the oil-for-food program."
Iraq has been the greatest source of tension between the United States and Annan. But Annan dismissed accounts, provided by one of his top aides, that both Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger recently shouted at him for "going soft" on Saddam Hussein, although he conceded there have been "some tense discussions."
Annan said the differences aren't personal. "Anyone in this position could run into difficulties in those cases where U.S. national policy diverges from U.N. policy," he said. "And I think the U.S. national policy on Iraq goes beyond what the [U.N. Security] Council has mandated."