- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 27 (UPI) — President George W. Bush said Thursday that countries opposed to resuming the Iraqi oil-for-food program should not politicize much-needed humanitarian aid.

"This urgent humanitarian issue must not be politicized, and the Security Council should give Secretary-General (Kofi) Annan the authority to start getting food supplies to those most in need of assistance," said Bush.

The president and British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived at Camp David on Wednesday for talks on the humanitarian and post-war reconstruction efforts. Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had a series of meetings with Blair at the presidential retreat nestled in the Maryland mountains.

The discussions Thursday centered on the role the United States and Britain would play in the humanitarian relief efforts and post-war reconstruction of Iraq. U.S. officials are concerned that nations on the Security Council opposed to the U.S.-British invasion will block U.N. aid to the Iraqi people.

"There are those currently in the debate who seem to believe this is a statement about whether you did or did not agree about what happened in the launching of this war. We believe this is an issue of humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people," said a senior Bush administration official.

Russia, France and China, all permanent members of the Security Council, were staunchly opposed to the war, wanting instead to continue weapons inspections. Germany, which also sits on the council but is not a permanent member, was also against the U.S.-led attack.

"I don't know the motives of those who are making it difficult to get oil-for-food restarted. But I would hope that an appeal can be made to them to recognize that this is not the time to fight old battles of any kind, this is a time to respond to the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people," a senior administration official said.

The Iraqi oil-for-food program has provided $25 billion in humanitarian supplies since 1996 despite what U.S. officials call Iraqi government subversion, with another $10 billion in the pipeline, according to the U.S. Department of State.

The United Nations halted the program when the bombing campaign in Iraq began more than a week ago. Blair was headed to New York Thursday where he planned to discuss humanitarian aid with Annan. Annan has said he was concerned by the casualties in the conflict, adding that it was Washington's responsibility to provide humanitarian aid to civilians in areas controlled by the coalition.

"More than half the Iraqi people depend on this program as their sole source of food," Bush said.

At midmorning Thursday, Bush and Blair faced reporters in a 25-minute news conference in which they made their case for the pace of the war and strategy for ousting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power.

"This isn't a matter of timetables; it's a matter of victory," Bush said. "The Iraqi people have got to know that. They've got to know that they will be liberated, and Saddam Hussein will be removed, no matter how long it takes."

Great Britain has been the United States' closest ally and largest coalition partner. Blair supported Bush in the effort to disarm Saddam despite intense political pressure from members of his own Labor party and large anti-war demonstrations.

The discussions got under way as coalition forces in Iraq faced their toughest opposition yet. Senior administration officials denied that the White House had ever placed a timetable on the progress of the war or set a deadline for when the conflict would end.

"The timetable is when we complete the mission," an administration official said. " … Let me just suggest that the progress is steady, it is within the bounds of what is expected."

Blair and Bush were briefed by national security and defense officials on the progress of the coalition forces, which were reportedly within 50 miles of Baghdad. Basra had been surrounded and the southern port of Umm Qasr was under coalition control, Blair said.

"They've paved the way for humanitarian aid to flow into the country. And they've brought real damage on Iraq's command and control," Blair said. "Let me emphasize once again that our primary focus now is and must be the military victory, which we will prosecute with the utmost vigor."

The Bush administration's move to provide assistance for civilians caught in the war zone is similar to efforts to provide help during the conflict in Afghanistan, a so-called "butter and bullets" campaign. It has pledged $105 million in aid to international humanitarian organizations.

There have been problems moving humanitarian assistance into the region. Umm Qasr, the only seaport along Iraq's coast, was secured by allied forces Wednesday.

Having seized the port, coalition forces swept the harbor for mines after two Iraqi tugboats carrying explosives were interdicted. A British vessel, the Sir Galahad, stocked with food and approximately 1,500 tons of water, was ready to dock. Australia sent two ships, each filled with 50,000 tons of wheat, which were standing by waiting to unload.

Humanitarian aid and the question of who will supply what are the subject of intense negotiation at the United Nations and EU headquarters in Brussels.

There was some indication Wednesday that the United States did not favor a large role for the world body in a post-Saddam Iraq. Powell told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee that it would not support "essentially handing everything over to the U.N. for someone designated by the U.N. to suddenly become in charge of this whole operation."

Senior administration officials on Thursday said that the reconstruction of Iraq would be different from post-war efforts in other countries. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq is more modern with a civil service infrastructure that could continue to work once the regime was gone, officials said. At the same time, it has an active community of exiles who can assist in rebuilding.

U.S. officials Thursday gave a portrait of what post-war Iraq would look like. The interim Iraqi authority would be composed of people who have worked outside Iraq and those still inside the country who oppose Saddam's government.

"There's a firm belief that legitimate leadership will emerge from inside the country," an administration official said.

Blair and Bush also discussed the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, a situation that U.S. officials say is receiving attention despite the Iraqi war. Bush earlier this month laid out a road map for the Israelis and Palestinians, conditioned on the confirmation of a Palestinian Authority prime minister.

The two leaders said they would release the road map designed to turn their vision of a two-state solution into a reality that both nations are strongly committed to implementing.

"I see an opportunity, as does Prime Minister Blair, to bring renewed hope and progress to the entire Middle East," Bush said.

The road map calls for reciprocating steps "of target dates and benchmarks" to address Israeli concerns for security and Palestinian goals for an independent state.

Its first phase requires the cessation of both Palestinian terrorism and building of Israeli settlements in predominantly Palestinian areas.

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