Border clampdown hits vital Iraq aid

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IRAQ'S claim that stringent new border controls in Jordan, aimed at stemming sanctions-busting, are also cutting Iraq's lifeline of authorised humanitarian supplies of food and medicine, is being given some credence by senior Western diplomats in Amman.

Under the United Nations sanctions, all food and medicines can flow freely and legitimately into the country. Most of these supplies have been entering Iraq through Jordan. The problem is that, to be effective, customs checks inevitably delay legal and illegal goods. One result of the clampdown is that traders in legal goods no longer see any profit in fighting with the bureaucracy. The number of trucks now crossing the Jordanian-Iraqi border has dwindled to a trickle. There were 600 a day going through before July; now there are about 30.

Reports of food spoiling and legitimate shipments being delayed have been received, say the diplomats. One Western official even suggested that it might be a good thing if Jordan enforced its new customs checks a little less enthusiastically. The strictness of the new regime was Jordan's 'initial flush of enthusiasm' after recent warnings from the United States, and the situation might ease once this enthusiasm waned, he said.

Another cause of the fall-off in supplies reaching Iraq may have been the reported execution by President Saddam Hussein of 42 Iraqi merchants - mostly trading in banned goods from Jordan - for profiteering. The executions have struck fear into Iraqi traders in Amman. In addition, some observers speculate that the lack of hard currency and hyper- inflation in Iraq may be deterring traders from doing deals for fear of not being paid.

Diplomats concede that it does not help the UN if sanctions rules are imposed so tightly that legal goods are blocked and the humanitarian crisis in Iraq worsens. The irony of this analysis will not be lost on King Hussein. For months, Jordan, which in the past depended heavily on trade with Iraq, has been vilified for allowing goods barred under UN sanctions to enter Iraq. It has been accused of slack checks at border crossing points, the airport in Amman and the port of Aqaba.

Last month the US Secretary of State, James Baker, raised the issue during a visit to Jordan, and the King was told that, unless Jordan clamped down, the UN would send in international observers. Jordan did as it was told.

Sources at one Amman airport transit company, which ships Iraq's medicine stocks, say it is now taking goods one or two weeks to pass through controls, whereas before it was taking a few days. Trucks heading for the Iraqi border are being inspected at several stages. Even goods which have been checked and sealed at Aqaba are now being re-examined at the border.

In the back corridors of the UN, however, Jordan has argued that sanctions are not the way to bring Iraq to heel and will only cause suffering.