Britain, US Reportedly Pushing for Removal of UN Official in Iraq

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

London ( - Britain and the United States reportedly want the UN to withdraw its humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad because he's called for an end to the nine-year-old UN sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Citing diplomatic sources, a report in Tuesday's Financial Times said pressure being exerted on the UN official, German national Hans von Sponeck, echoed a situation that led to his predecessor, Denis Halliday, leaving the post a year ago. Halliday, an Irishman, subsequently left the UN and campaigns for an end to the sanctions against Iraq.

But the report says UN secretary-general Kofi Annan is believed last week to have urged Von Sponeck to remain in the post for another year.

Annan has clashed with the U.S. and Britain over the Iraqi question before. Last week he said Washington was "disrupting" the UN's humanitarian efforts in Iraq by blocking contracts for supplies bought by Iraq under the "oil-for-food" compromise, agreed in 1996.

Those comments, and others by Von Sponeck - who oversees "oil-for-food" - contrast with the views of Britain and the United States, who blame President Saddam Hussein for the debilitating effect of the sanctions and say his government refuses to distribute the permitted humanitarian aid to Iraqis.

The "oil-for-food" agreement allows Iraq to sell $5.3 billion of otherwise embargoed oil every six months, to buy food and medicines for its citizens. To make up for past shortfalls, the UN Security Council upped the amount to $7 billion for the current half-year period.

But the United States, concerned that some of the goods being brought in could be used for military purposes, has blocked permission for some contracts in the Security Council, according to reports published in Washington.

Von Sponeck has also argued against continuing to link the lifting of sanctions with questions of disarmament - the very basis of the UN sanctions campaign. He says Security Council members should remove politics from the Iraqi debate and focus on how to help ordinary Iraqis.

Iraq claims thousands of people, including children, have died of preventable diseases because of a shortage of essential medical supplies. According to UN statistics, the death rate among Iraqi children has more than doubled over the past nine years.

The United States has accused Saddam of deliberately withholding essential supplies in a bid to increase Iraqis' suffering in the hope this will build momentum in a drive to end sanctions.

"We often hear that sanctions are hurting the Iraqi people," State Department spokesman James Rubin said in September. "But an ... objective analysis of the facts reveals that Iraq has access to international markets and the money to buy food, but Saddam will not buy or distribute it to the needy."

He also accused Saddam of spending around $2 billion to build 48 palaces, while bulldozing villages whose inhabitants complained of shortages.

Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk at the time accused the Iraqis of either sitting on medical supplies or refusing to order them, in an attempt "to use the plight of Iraqi children as a propaganda tool against sanctions."

The international community's stance on Iraq remains essentially stalemated. Security Council members France, Russia and China are pushing for an easing or lifting of sanctions, while Britain and the U.S. believe this could enable Saddam to resume his "weapons of mass destruction" programs.

The U.S. is promoting opposition Iraqi groups, in the hope Saddam will eventually be toppled.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow