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UN Battles to Meet November Deadline to Shut Down Iraqi Oil-for-Food Program - 2003-09-29

Beleaguered United Nations officials are battling to meet a November deadline for shutting down Iraq's oil-for-food program. The Security Council turned down a request to extend the deadline.

It's a big job, and there's virtually nobody there to do it.

On a day when the entire force of international U.N. employees in Iraq dwindled to less than 50, the head of the oil-for-food program said he would somehow carry out the Security Council's order to shut down the $100 billion effort in the next eight weeks.

But the program's director, Benon Sevan, made it clear he was not happy with the Council's decision. "I received a negative response, and there is not much alternative; there's no alternative," he said. "So, we have to try to do the best of things. Unless the Council decides otherwise, I have no alternative but to close the program by 21 November. I will never ask the Council for anything. They are big boys, they can do the job."

Mr. Sevan said he had told the Security Council he needs a minimum of 115 international staffers in northern Iraq alone, where the bulk of the food distribution effort is centered. But figures released Monday indicate the international force in that region has been cut to less than 25.

When a reporter asked if it were possible to complete the shutdown sooner, Mr. Sevan ridiculed the suggestion.

"It's impossible. How long does it take you to move from one apartment to another apartment. We're talking about a program, which involves $65 billion worth of oil exports and $47 billion worth of humanitarian supplies imported, involving 24 different sectors," he said. "So, therefore, you cannot just close it and walk away. There's too much documentation involved, too many projects involved, we have over 400 projects in the north."

The U.N.-administered oil-for-food program has been providing food for as much as 90 percent of Iraq's population, using revenue generated by sale of the country's oil.

After the November deadline, those oil revenues will be channeled into a new U.S.-controlled Development Fund for Iraq that will be used to rebuild the country.