Secretary-General Kofi Annan told U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday that the United States is legally responsible for providing humanitarian aid to Iraqis "gravely affected by the war" in areas controlled by coalition forces.
President Bush promised on Sunday that "massive amounts of humanitarian aid should begin moving with the next 36 hours." No aid has materialized, and Annan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and international aid agencies warn of a humanitarian crisis.
Scrambling to answer critics, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer blamed Saddam Hussein's regime for slowing the flow of $105 million in U.S. aid by placing mines in the southern port of Umm Qasr, a key transport point on the Persian Gulf.
Annan stressed to Rice that the United Nations was prepared to provide humanitarian assistance but could not until security conditions allowed the safe return of U.N. staff, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
"Until then, humanitarian assistance would have to be provided by the United States and its coalition partners in those areas under their control," he said.
Russia and other Security Council members emphasize that under the Geneva Conventions, occupying forces are responsible for providing humanitarian goods to sustain the population.
The U.S. and British decision to attack Iraq despite failing to get U.N. backing for war left the council deeply divided. Russia, France, Germany and China -- which believed Saddam could have been disarmed peacefully through U.N. inspections -- want to ensure that the immediate humanitarian costs of the war are paid by the United States and not the United Nations.
But the United Nations will still be a major humanitarian player in postwar Iraq.
Before the war, the U.N. oil-for-food program provided food, medicine and humanitarian aid to 60 percent of Iraq's 22 million people -- over 13 million Iraqis.
The program allows the country to sell unlimited quantities of oil provided the money goes mainly to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian goods. The proceeds from oil sales are deposited in a U.N.-controlled escrow account.
Annan wants to revive the program as quickly as possible, but a resolution to allow the secretary-general to run the program for 45 days is stalled. Russia, Syria and others insist it must not sanction the war or give the United States control over the escrow account, which contains billions of dollars, to pay for humanitarian relief.
The council scheduled closed consultations for Wednesday to discuss the proposed resolution. In another initiative, Annan is to meet Wednesday with heads of U.N. funds and humanitarian relief programs to discuss an appeal to donors for humanitarian aid of close to $2 billion.
Rice talked to Annan about adjustments to the oil-for-food program sought by the Bush administration, the U.S. scenario for postwar Iraq, and Washington's desire to return sovereignty to the Iraqi people as soon as possible, said U.S. spokesman Richard Grenell.
Annan said any United Nations role in postwar Iraq beyond the provision of humanitarian assistance must be approved by the Security Council in a new resolution. He also emphasized the need to maintain Iraq's territorial integrity "and the right of its people to determine their political future and exercise control over their natural resources," Eckhard said.