21 May 1998
(Senate panel questions purpose, effectiveness of sanctions) (860) By Peter Sawchyn USIA Staff Writer Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering staunchly reassured a Senate panel May 21 that United Nations-imposed sanctions on Iraq are an effective way of countering the threat Saddam Hussein continues to pose to peace and security in the Gulf and to U.S. national interests. At the same time, Pickering said the U.N.'s "oil-for-food" program, which grew out of the sanctions regime, has effectively served a two-fold purpose: as a life line to the Iraqi people, and as a way of keeping billions of dollars in oil revenues out of Saddam's pocket. "The so-called oil-for-food framework is a unique effort," Pickering told a joint meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations and Energy and Natural Resources committees. "For the first time, the international community is using the revenues of a state subject to strict sanctions to meet the humanitarian needs of the that state's citizens," he said. Under the program, the U.N. has allowed Iraq to sell $2.5 billion of oil a year to help buy food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies under strict guidelines. In February, the U.N. Security Council agreed to increase the amount of oil sold to $5.2 billion every six months, and authorized spending to rehabilitate hospitals, improve water treatment, schools and food distribution. According to the U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs, over three million metric tons of food purchased under the oil-for-food program arrived in Iraq last year. Pickering said the oil-for-food program helps keep sanctions in place and makes them more tolerable for the Iraqi people. Without the program, more Iraqis would starve because Saddam would "continue to exploit the suffering of (his) people to force the international community to lift the sanctions," he said. The Under Secretary's reassurances, however, appeared to do little to assuage the panel's concern that the U.N. sanctions may be "collapsing," and that the oil-for-food program is prompting Iraq to sell oil illegally. "Since the end of the Gulf War Saddam has contributed not one cent of Iraqi government funds to any food project, any medicine project, any humanitarian project of any kind for his people," Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) said in a prepared statement. "At the same time, he has been earning upwards of $400 million a year from illegal oil sales." Pickering acknowledged that illegal Iraqi oil sales via Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are a continuing concern for the U.S. and the United Nations. Moreover, that Iraq smuggles an estimated 110,000 barrels of oil a day through these countries in exchange for cash, "strongly suggests that the proceeds are intended for non-humanitarian purposes," Pickering said. He told the panel the U.S. and its six allies that patrol the international waters off the coasts of Iraq, Iran and the U.A.E. have begun to make certain strategic adjustments to increase the interception of vessels loaded with Iraqi "gasoil" or diesel fuel. To date, 20 such vessels have been captured, Pickering said. Pickering said the problem of intercepting the vessels is compounded by the fact that Iraq is able to sail most of the way to the UAE through Iranian territorial waters, where the U.S. has little or no influence. And virtually all of the oil smuggled into Turkey is by cross-border truck traffic, he noted. Pickering did say, however, that recent talks in Washington with the visiting Crown Prince of the U.A.E. resulted in a "pledge to do more" to shut down shipments of illegal Iraqi oil into the country. "I find your statements reassuring," Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK) told the Under Secretary. "But I also find them inconsistent with how the administration will curb or stop the illegal oil sales," he said. "Iraq now sells almost more oil than it did before the Gulf War," Murkowski said. "In effect, Saddam has the best of both worlds: he can sell oil legally to rebuild his economy, while the cash flow from the illegal sales allows him to line his pockets and stay in power," he said. Pickering acknowledged the U.N. programs are "not perfect." "We recognize that there have been - and will continue to be -- glitches in the implementation of an effort of this scale, especially given Iraq's attitude toward it," he said. However, without the sanctions and the oil-food program, Pickering said Saddam would stand to earn between $10 and $15 billion in oil revenues annually. "The fact is the oil-for-food program takes money out of Saddam's hands. It also helps us to maintain the international coalition against Saddam, and in the process helps keeps some 19 million Iraqis from starving. Many more of them would have been long gone if not for our efforts to enforce the oil-for-food program," Pickering said.