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UN Closes Iraqi Oil-for-Food Program - 2003-11-21

The United Nations closes down its Iraq Oil for Food program Friday and hands over its assets to the U.S. led Coalition in Baghdad. Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave the program a glowing final report card.

It was the largest aid program in United Nations history. For nearly seven years, it allowed Iraq to sell a part of its vast oil reserves to buy food, clothing and medicine for its people.

The Oil-for-Food concept was designed to offset the effects of crippling sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein's government after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Over the seven years of its life, more than $65 billion passed through its coffers.

In an address to the Security Council marking the end of the Oil-for-Food program, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said it had allowed nine different U-N agencies to run humanitarian operations in Iraq.

"During these seven years, the program delivered food rations to feed all 27 million Iraqi residents. As a result, the malnutrition rate among Iraqi children was halved," he said.

He said U.N. operated vaccination campaigns had reduced child mortality. There have been no new cases of polio reported in Iraq in three years. In addition, electricity blackouts were reduced, and clean water became more available.

But in the minds of many Iraqis, Oil for Food came to symbolize not the humanitarian help, but the 13-years of sanctions, and the hardship they brought.

A panel investigating the August bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad concluded that the world body was widely seen as being at the heart of what it called "the longest and most stringent sanctions regime ever".

In his otherwise glowing report on the program, Secretary General Annan expressed regret that the sanctions had caused such suffering.

"At the time, few of us could have imagined that those sanctions would remain in place for nearly 13 years, or the terrible toll that they would impose on the health and nutrition of millions of innocent people, particularly the most vulnerable," he said.

Officials of the U.S. led coalition said this week that even though the Oil-for-Food program is being shut down, food deliveries to Iraqis would continue through at least June. The coalition has agreed to keep paying the 2,600 Iraqi nationals involved in running the program.

Steven Mann, in charge of coordinating the handover, says after June, it will be up to Iraqis to decide what happens. The program currently provides about 500,000 metric tons of food a month.