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Bombing Iraq Could Cut Off UN Food Aid

UN leader wants the oil-for-food program expanded. But a US strike would disrupt it.

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United Nations and international relief officials are warning that the fragile humanitarian aid effort in Iraq will likely be among the first casualties of any sustained American bombing campaign.

After seven years of the most stringent sanctions ever applied by the UN, Iraq is deemed to be in a precarious humanitarian situation. If United States forces building in the Persian Gulf for "Operation Desert Thunder" strike the country to enforce cooperation with UN weapons inspectors, peripheral damage to the humanitarian relief system could cause it to collapse.

"The impact on food supplies for people could be catastrophic," says one senior UN official.

"It's obvious that [the UN mandated oil-for-food program] can only deal with one crisis at a time, and that crisis is the effect of sanctions," adds a Western relief worker here. "I'm afraid that military strikes could close it down."

The oil-for-food deal is based on UN Security Council Resolution 986, which allows Iraq to sell $2 billion worth of oil every six months. The tightly controlled proceeds pay for humanitarian supplies, compensate victims of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and finance the work of UN weapons inspectors.

Iraq accepted the program in December 1996. Delays have lowered the expectations of ordinary Iraqis, who welcome the food ration but have seen little improvement in health conditions.

To ease the strain of the sanctions - which the US says are aimed at the regime of President Saddam Hussein, not the Iraqi people - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed last month to more than double the program, enabling Iraq to sell $5.2 billion worth of oil every six months.

Iraq has so far rejected the deal, though UN officials say they are hopeful that an agreement will be reached. The proposed increase comes close to the amount of oil Iraq exported before the Gulf War. But Iraqi authorities charge the result would be complete UN control of Iraq's economy.

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