- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

The head of the United Nations’ embattled oil-for-food program warned the Bush administration yesterday that an abrupt cutoff of the program will only worsen Iraq’s humanitarian crisis, amid a continuing struggle in the Security Council over the U.N. role in rebuilding the country.White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters that U.S. officials are still considering how to seek an end to U.N. economic sanctions on Iraq and to the oil-for-food program, expected to expire June 3.”Right now the process is a consultative one,” Mr. Fleischer said, but “the fundamental goal remains the total lifting of sanctions.”Separately, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday proposed the end of most U.S. bilateral trade and aid bans on Iraq, citing the end of the security and terrorism threat with the ouster of the Saddam Hussein regime.The recommendation, which still must be approved by President Bush, “would provide greater flexibility in permitting certain types of trade with and assistance to Iraq,” said Cofer Black, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism.The 7-year-old oil-for-food program was designed to restrict Iraqi oil revenue under Saddam to the purchase of food, medicine and other humanitarian aid to Iraq’s 24 million people, 60 percent of whom have relied on the program’s monthly food basket to survive.But the program has been the target of persistent criticism of inefficiency, financial secrecy, high overhead, and favoritism to contractors and bidders from certain countries, notably Russia and France.The program in recent days has also been caught in the crossfire over debates on who will control Iraq’s Oil Ministry, the end to other U.N. sanctions against Iraq, and whether lucrative rights granted by Saddam to Russian and other oil companies will be honored by a new Iraqi government.Benon V. Sevan, the Cypriot diplomat who has run the U.N. oil-for-food program since 1997, said in a sometimes-heated Washington press briefing yesterday that an abrupt termination of the program could leave large numbers of Iraqis with nothing to eat.Mr. Sevan said his agency would abide by whatever decision the Security Council made. But, he added, “Whatever is done has to be introduced gradually, step by step, so as not to disrupt the lives of the Iraqi people.”Mr. Sevan offered a point-by-point defense of recent criticisms of the program, saying it had efficiently distributed food and other aid despite numerous handicaps and restrictions imposed by the Security Council.He denied charges that U.N. bureaucrats and contractors had been “skimming” profits from the program, saying the mandated 2.2 percent overhead margin to operate the program compared favorably to any private company and to any contractors the United States and its allies may hire to help rebuild Iraq.”We were not sitting on our butts, I assure you,” Mr. Sevan insisted.U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday urged the Security Council to provide a clear and extensive role for the United Nations in rebuilding Iraq. Many in the Bush administration have expressed doubts that the United Nations should play such a major role beyond humanitarian work.Mr. Annan said there was “no doubt” that U.N. sanctions and the oil-for-food program will be phased out, although the timing remains in question.He refused to detail what the U.N. role should be, but told the Security Council at a public session yesterday that role should be “clear, coherent and matched by the necessary resources.”

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