- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2003

NEW YORK — The food distribution program that most Iraqis depend on will transfer from the United Nations to coalition control at midnight tomorrow.

The 7-year-old “oil-for-food” program, created by the U.N. Security Council to soften the effect of sanctions on a starving Iraqi populace, has become the sole source of nutrition for more than 60 percent of the country.

U.S. officials expect the transfer to be relatively seamless, and say the recipients of the monthly market basket — a dry assortment of cereals, grains, flour, tea, sugar, cooking oil and soap — will hardly notice a difference.

“The public distribution system of a food basket will continue through at least June 2004 so in sum, you’re not going to see any change in this,” Steven Mann, the senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for the transition of the oil-for-food program, said on Monday. “What happens after June 2004 with the public distribution system, that’s up to Iraqi officials themselves to decide at that point.”

An exhausted and emotional Benon Sevan, the executive director of the oil-for-food program for all of its seven years, yesterday praised the myriad agencies and funds involved in running the program. He also urged the CPA not to tinker with it too quickly, because so many Iraqis rely on the assistance.

“The situation hasn’t changed,” he told reporters. “No matter what changes you want to bring about, please do it gradually. Because overnight the dependency does not stop.”

Indeed, the monthly rations are vitally important to Iraq’s families, who supplement the staples with local meat, produce and dairy products. In the chaos following the war, however, supplies are low and prices have climbed.

Over the past six months, the U.N. World Food Program has been frantically renegotiating contracts and prioritizing the most important contracts for CPA to honor. The agency has been hampered by the suspension of U.N. programs in Iraq, and the exodus of hundreds of foreign staffers since the August bombing of the U.N. headquarters.

The United Nations has already turned over to the CPA about $3 billion in oil-for-food accounts, as well as $384 million in assets already stored in warehouses throughout the country.

Another $1.5 billion worth of merchandise is still in the pipeline, for delivery within the next six months.

Shortly after U.S. and British troops ousted the Saddam Hussein regime, the Americans drafted a Security Council resolution recognizing the CPA as the occupying power. The resolution also ordered the transfer of the oil-for-food program to the U.S.-led coalition, effective tomorrow, because the program would no longer be necessary without sanctions.

Between December 1996 and March 2003, the oil-for-food program allowed the Saddam regime to export about $65 billion worth of oil and buy food, medicines, and other humanitarian supplies, subject to U.N. approval.

The program — whose value dipped and swelled with the volume of oil Iraq pumped as well as its market price — was usually several times as large as the whole annual budget of the United Nations.

The process was extremely complex and highly politicized, and was quickly manipulated by both the Iraqi regime and the U.S. government.

Once he reluctantly agreed to the council’s terms, Saddam realized that he could use the oil-for-food list to create an incorruptible inventory of families and addresses. The regime used the monthly distribution to keep tabs on people through 44,000 distribution agents and their ration books.

By buying inferior products, and controlling how medicines and other necessities were distributed, the regime increased the death tolls of the very young, elderly or infirm. Four years ago, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan conceded that Saddam had “won the propaganda war” against sanctions and the United Nations.

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