Despite strenuous objections from the United States and Britain, Secretary General Kofi Annan today extended the term of the U.N.'s chief humanitarian relief official in Iraq for another year.
U.S. officials have accused the official, Hans von Sponeck, of siding with Iraq in a propaganda battle over who is to blame for the suffering of the Iraqi people: the West, for imposing harsh economic sanctions, or Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, for failing to comply with the terms for lifting those sanctions.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said von Sponeck, a career U.N. official from Germany, has exceeded his authority by publicly criticizing the Security Council's sanctions policy and by investigating civilian casualties from U.S.-British bombing raids in Iraq's "no fly" zones.
Rubin also charged that von Sponeck allowed the Iraqi government to fill warehouses with food and medicine that should have been distributed to the Iraqi people under the terms of the U.N.'s "oil for food" program, which allows Iraq to sell $5.2 billion of oil every six months to meet humanitarian needs.
"We do not have confidence in his leadership of this effort," Rubin said. "Mr. von Sponeck has undermined the role of the humanitarian coordinator in Iraq."
Fred Eckhard, Annan's chief spokesman, said the secretary-general believes that anyone serving in such a sensitive job inevitably will offend the United States, Britain or other countries. Eckhard said von Sponeck's predecessor, Denis J. Halliday of Ireland, ran afoul of the United States and his eventual successor probably will, too.
"It kind of comes with the territory," Eckhard said.
Annan nevertheless has asked von Sponeck to meet with U.S. and British officials to "clear up any misunderstanding that might have arisen," Eckhard said, adding that the U.N. chief "wants von Sponeck to continue in this job."
Rubin's unusually sharp public criticism of von Sponeck comes as the United States and Britain continue to wrestle with Russia, France and other countries that favor lifting the economic sanctions if U.N. weapons inspectors are allowed to return to Iraq.
Last week, Washington and London rejected a recommendation by the secretary general to allow Iraq to spend an additional $300 million on repairs to oil production facilities. And on Monday, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering pledged U.S. support for Iraqi opposition leaders seeking to topple Saddam Hussein.
Annan, meanwhile, has criticized the United States and Britain for blocking Iraqi requests to import more than $700 million in various goods under the oil-for-food program. Washington is responsible for holding up the delivery of more than 580 items, while Britain is holding up 82 items.