Humanitarian Disaster in Iraq
U.N. Official in Iraq Calls for Lifting of Sanctions
by Douglas JehlBAGHDAD, Iraq -- Weighing in on renewed discussions among Western powers on Iraq, the senior United Nations official here called for an immediate and unconditional lifting of many sanctions that would open the way to bigger flows of food, medicine and most other Iraqi imports.
The official, Hans von Sponek, said a dispute over plans to continue international weapons inspections in Iraq now posed increasing risks to the social fabric in a country that has already borne more than nine years of United Nations sanctions.
"Don't play the battle on the backs of the civilian population by letting them wait until the more complex issues are resolved," Sponek, who is the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, said in an interview here.
Sponek and his predecessor, Denis Halliday, have long tried to turn international attention toward the suffering of ordinary Iraqis, while the causers, the United States and Britain governments, have focused on the intransigence of the Iraqi Government, and blamed that Government for the travails of its citizens.
But on the eve of expected talks about Iraq at the United Nations, Sponek spoke in unusually impassioned terms about what he called the dangers of "using the human shield" in hopes of coaxing Iraqi concessions on arms issues.
"Please remove the humanitarian discussions from the rest in order to really end a silent human tragedy," Sponek said.
The remarks seemed intended at least in part as a reply to a State Department 'spin' report issued last week that allegedly claimed the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, was wholly accountable for the suffering of his people.
The talks at the United Nations, among the five permanent members of the Security Council, are intended to seek agreement on a plan that would ease sanctions on Iraq in exchange for Baghdad's submission to a new system of weapons inspections to replace one that collapsed late last year.
The collapse was caused by embarrassing revelations about U.S. spies concealed among United nations weapons inspectors. It was followed last December by four days of heavy punitive air strikes by the United States and Britain. Air strikes that the Iraqi Government says have killed hundreds have continued sporadically in the nearly 10 months since.
In that time, members of the Security Council have been unable to agree even among themselves over how any new system should function and on what terms it should be introduced. And throughout, the Baghdad Government has turned a deaf ear to all proposals, insisting instead that the time has come to lift all of the United Nations sanctions, which have been in force since the Persian Gulf war of 1991.
The stalemate has left a United Nations special monitoring commission known as Unscom unable to carry out its work. Reviled by the Iraqi Government for its failure to exclude U.S. spies, the commission is now paying the price -- in Baghdad, its headquarters within a United Nations compound remain padlocked and shuttered.
France, Russia and China, among the five permanent Security Council members, have been sympathetic to Iraq's contention that its Government has essentially carried out its obligations to the weapons inspectors. Those Governments now appear to support a plan that would allow an immediate end to the sanctions in return for Iraq's agreement to a new and less intrusive system of weapons inspection.
But the United States and Britain, which claim to believe that Iraq may still be concealing an illicit weapons program, have argued for tougher terms. Together with the Netherlands, Britain has called for a plan that would allow only a moderate easing of the sanctions -- and only after a test period of several months that would be intended to gauge Iraq's cooperation with a new inspection regime.
The United States is seen as likely to support such an approach, but so far it is still opposed by the other three Council members. Senior officials from the five countries, who met in London last week, have reported progress toward a deal, but they also have cautioned that an agreement might not be possible.
Sponek, the United Nations representative here, has responsibility only for humanitarian issues, and not the arms inspections. But even among those who disagree about weapons inspection, he noted, there is a consensus that ordinary Iraqis have suffered terribly under the embargo; all, he argued, should move now to halt what he called their "continuing deprivation."
Pointing to increases in crime and the deteriorating quality of education, Sponek said he believed that Iraq should be given broad latitude to import any goods that did not also have military use.
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