Geneva, Reuters, 22nd June

The United Nations' Gulf War reparations body yesterday announced it would pay $243.3 million to five Middle Eastern countries to fund studies on damage to the environment and public health caused by Iraq. Overcoming initial United States objections, the Geneva-based fund also agreed to provide up to $5 million for Iraq to prepare its defence against the claims, officials said. It is the first time Iraq has been given funds for technical assistance. The move comes amid British and U.S. attempts in the UN Security Council to revamp sanctions against Baghdad to ease the impact on civilians. Neighbouring states have filed a total of $46 billion worth of environmental claims against Iraq for damage due directly to its 1990 invasion and seven-month occupation of Kuwait. Iraqi troops fleeing a U.S.-led military coalition set fire to oil wells which spewed out pollution and took months to put out. The UN Compensation Commission (UNCC), which is handling a total of $300 billion in claims, has already awarded nearly $17 billion to Kuwait for damaged oil wells. The UNCC's Governing Council, the executive body, is made up of the same 15 states that sit on the UN Security Council. At its three-day session, the UNCC Council approved another $599 million in assorted claims by individuals, companies and governments - part of the ongoing process of reparations imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War. Payments included $74 million to Israel for damage caused by Scud missiles, officials said. The five "front line" states - Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan and Syria - were awarded $243.3 million to carry out the environmental studies. Turkey's claim was rejected. "The studies will bring forward information about the extent of environmental damage and public health damage," UNCC spokesman Joe Sills told a news briefing. The awards, to be paid in the next weeks, are: Saudi Arabia $109.6 million; Kuwait $108.9 million; Iran $17 million; Jordan $7.1 million and Syria $700,000. The funding for Iraq's defence was awarded after pressure by Russia and France, both highly critical of current international sanctions against Baghdad. "This was clearly a difficult political matter...because the U.S. publicly said initially that they opposed any funding being made available and I think some other members had reservations," Sills said. However, a U.S. spokesman in Geneva said Washington was "satisfied" with the assistance to Iraq. Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Samir Al Nima, had urged the Governing Council to reject funding the studies but to contribute $20 million to Iraq's defence. The fund currently receives 25 per cent of the revenue generated by the UN oil-for-food deal, which allows Iraq to use other proceeds from strictly controlled oil sales to buy humanitarian supplies. Iraq halted its oil exports under the programme on June 4 in protest at the Security Council extending the pact for only one month instead of the usual six so as to ponder new sanctions.