UNITED NATIONS – The Security Council (search) voted unanimously Thursday to extend until June 3 Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search)'s authority to speed additional food and medicine to the Iraqi people.
In an effort to get aid to Iraq (search) quickly, the council on March 28 authorized Annan to review nearly $16 billion in contracts already approved under the U.N. oil-for-food program and give priority to those that could be used immediately for humanitarian relief.
It empowered Annan to make decisions about the contracts for 45 days, but U.N. officials said the May 12 deadline was too short.
Benon Sevan, who runs the oil-for-food program, on Tuesday urged the council to extend the secretary-general's mandate until June 3.
He told the council U.N. agencies had identified over $450 million in humanitarian contracts that could be transported to Iraq before May 12. Extending the deadline to June 3, Sevan said, would mean an additional $130 million worth of badly needed food could be delivered.
The council -- divided over when and how to lift economic sanctions against Iraq -- is united on the need for the Iraqi people to continue to receive the humanitarian goods provided under the oil-for-food program.
Exactly how this will happen remains a subject of debate, and one with a deadline. The current six-month phase of the program, under which Iraqi uses oil revenues to buy food, medicine and other supplies, expires June 3.
The council's 15-0 vote Thursday will now give Annan authority over humanitarian contracts until that date.
Administrators of the program said Iraqis will probably need help more now than before the U.S.-led war that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Before the war, more than 90 percent of Iraq's 24 million people survived on the U.N. food basket and medical supplies. Sixty percent used to sell part of their rations to pay for other essential needs, because it was their only source of income, Sevan said.
"If anything, with the current uncertainties and difficulties, the Iraqi people will be even more dependent (on rations now), unless there is quick economic recovery," he said.
The oil-for-food program was suspended March 17. The U.S.-led assault began March 20.
Security Council President Adolfo Aguilar Zinser of Mexico said he expects discussions in the coming weeks to focus on what should happen next.
The oil-for-food program was designed to offset civilian suffering under economic sanctions the United Nations imposed after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
But the future of the program has become an urgent question, with President Bush demanding the immediate lifting of all sanctions and France calling for the suspension of trade, investment and air embargoes against Iraq.
Sanctions -- and in the bargain, the oil-for-food program -- are linked to Iraq's disarmament. Under council resolutions, U.N. weapons inspectors must certify that Iraq's nuclear, chemical, biological and long-range missile programs have been eliminated before sanctions can be lifted.
The United States is opposing the return of U.N. inspectors to Iraq and has sent in its own experts.
When Saddam was in power, the council would renew the program every six months, but that's not likely to happen now.
"There is, I think among delegations quite wide agreement that you cannot keep the program as is, and there is need for modifications," Sevan said.
He appealed to members to give top priority to the Iraqi people who "have suffered far too long" and urged that the program be phased out gradually -- a move supported by Mexico's Zinser and France's and Germany's U.N. ambassadors.
"You cannot just cut (the program) like an umbilical cord overnight," Sevan said.
Germany's U.N. ambassador, Gunter Pleuger, said the council might consider how "to de-link these issues" before June 3 so oil-for-food and humanitarian assistance could continue during a transitional period.