The Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Friday to free billions in Iraqi oil revenue to be used for the country's humanitarian crisis, deferring a looming political fight over who should control post-war Iraq.
The resolution temporarily restructures the United Nations' "oil-for-food" program, taking authority from Iraq to order food and medical supplies and giving it to Secretary-General Kofi Annan for 45 days -- and perhaps longer.
"This is a signal to the people that they are not forgotten," said German Ambassador Gunter Pleuger, calling the program "the biggest humanitarian assistance program in the history of the U.N."
Diplomats had haggled over the measure for more than a week, concerned that its wording assumed the Iraqi government would fall and the resolution could legitimize the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Russia, France and Syria insisted that the measure specify the obligations of "the occupying power" -- a term the United States was not prepared to embrace. On Thursday evening, negotiators smoothed over some of the sticking points by dropping sensitive terms and quoting the duties of occupation under the 1949 Geneva Convention.
"We scrubbed it clean of any trace of political inference," said one diplomat involved in the negotiations. "We'll deal with that later. Right now, the important thing is to get food to Iraq as quickly as possible, and we can all agree on that."
The resolution authorizes Annan to borrow program funds earmarked for other uses -- such as war reparations to Kuwait for the 1990 invasion by Iraq -- and apply them to Iraq's most urgent needs. He can also renegotiate contracts and delivery arrangements to get supplies to the most people as soon as possible.
Despite months of acrimonious debate over whether Iraq should be disarmed by force, the council managed to find common ground on Iraq on Friday for the first time since November. It was then that the 15 members agreed in Resolution 1441 that Iraq should disarm or face "serious consequences."
"On the basis of this humanitarian text, the Security Council has recovered its unity, and that is an important result as well," said France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Marc de La Sabliere.
The unanimous vote was a gratifying surprise to British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, who said that he hadn't expected Russia and Syria to come on board. "I was very pleased," he said.
Syria's ambassador, Mikhail Wehbe, said the vote was not an endorsement of the U.S.-led war. "Our vote should in no way be construed as accepting the American-British occupation," he said.
When the conflict winds down, the council will be forced to address the role the United Nations should play in Iraq. Washington prefers that the United Nations serve solely as humanitarian coordinator and not be involved in the political administration of the country, even temporarily.
Others in the council, even Britain, have said they want the United Nations to play "a central role" in helping Iraq recover from war and returning rule to Iraqis as soon as possible. At the same time, some believe that the United States and Britain should bear sole responsibility -- especially financially -- for rebuilding Iraq.
Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Douri protested that the new resolution usurped control from the Iraqi government. He declared that Iraq would not pump or ship oil under the new U.N. rules, even though that is Iraq's primary source of legitimate income. There are 6.7 million barrels of Iraqi oil from the program in storage at the Turkish port of Ceyhan, said a U.N. official, and oil continues to flow there from the Kirkuk oil fields in northern Iraq.
If any other parties, including the United Nations, try to pump or ship Iraqi oil ready for delivery, "it would be considered theft," Douri said Friday evening.
If no new money comes in from oil sales, that means aid groups and U.N. agencies would have to scramble for other funding to address mounting needs in Iraq, where the population already is under severe strain from a decade of sanctions.
As the council voted on Friday, the heads of the United Nations' humanitarian agencies launched an emergency appeal for an additional $2.2 billion to help buy and distribute food for residents of Iraq. More than 60% of the population relies on the U.N. "oil-for-food" program to provide food and medicine.
"We have stockpiled food for 2.1 million people in the region, but that's expected to run out by May," said Jordan Dey, spokesman for the World Food Program. "Eventually we'll need food for 27 million people."
Distributing it throughout the country during the fighting "is a logistical nightmare," he said.
U.N. agencies still have 3,000 Iraqi staff members working to distribute aid throughout the country.
The United Nations' international staff members were evacuated the day before the war began.
The first shipment of aid since the war started -- a gift from the government of Kuwait -- finally made it to Umm al Qasr in the southern region on Friday. It was delayed for several days by bad weather, heavy fighting and mines in the deep-water port.