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US criticised over Iraq relief contracts
By Carola Hoyos, United Nations correspondent
Financial Times January 9 2002
The United Nations on Tuesday criticised the US for blocking billions of dollars of humanitarian contracts bound for Iraq, expressing “grave concern at the unprecedented surge in volume of holds placed on contracts”.
In a move that is likely to frustrate Washington, the UN announced it would next week send Benon Sevan, the executive director of its Iraq programme, to Iraq to assess the massive humanitarian project and the impact of the US policy.
The UN’s Iraq programme expressed its grave concern in a statement that was clearly aimed at the US, which is behind more than 90 per cent of the nearly $5bn-worth (£3.5bn) of humanitarian and oil equipment contracts that have been delayed, though it did not specifically name the country.
Most of the rest of the slowed contracts have been put on hold by the UK, Washington’s closest ally on Iraq policy. “I remember less than a year ago, we were worried about the number [of holds] exceeding $2bn,” said one diplomat.
Under the UN’s oil-for-food programme, Iraq may use its oil revenue to buy humanitarian goods and oil spare parts. These exceptions to the comprehensive sanctions the UN placed on the country more than 10 years ago must, however, be approved by the UN’s sanctions committee, comprising the 15 Security Council members.
The US has been the group’s most vigilant member in screening the contracts in order to block those that include items that could also be used for warfare. But in the last year the US has come under increasing scrutiny for its policy, which many say goes beyond ensuring that no dual-use items enter Iraq.
One diplomat said: “Off the record they [US diplomats] say, ‘this is part of the war on terrorism. Don’t expect us to be softer on the subject after September 11’.” He added: “If the Iraqis don’t co-operate with the programme, don’t ask why.”
Critics say the US is using the humanitarian programme to punish Baghdad for not complying with weapons inspectors and for smuggling increasing volumes of its oil. The US has denied the accusations and in the past year promised to streamline its procedures. In the UN’s most recent resolution the US won Russia’s agreement to revise the programme. Russia, which blocked the same measure last summer, had argued the US needed to change its own policies of unilaterally delaying contracts, rather than rewrite the UN’s humanitarian programme.