US impetus on Iraq relief plan

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COMPETING projects that might help the suffering Kurds, Shia Muslims and other citizens of Iraq this winter were given a push yesterday by the United States, but aid agencies questioned whether a cautious United Nations had the right plan to deliver the aid.

A senior Bush administration figure told reporters in Washington that the US and its allies wanted several hundred million dollars of frozen Iraqi assets freed to pay for UN inspections and humanitarian work.

That would need a new UN resolution, and, if it overcame objections from reluctant Third-World states and international bankers, it would probably lead to a UN-supervised pool of money for use.

'It could be good news,' said a worker with a large British charity helping the Kurds. 'But we're just very sceptical about whether the UN can move quickly or what the UN is going to achieve, even if it has funding. They want Baghdad's approval for everything they do.'

The charity and many others working with the Kurds believe the best way to help them is to step up aid already going over the border with Turkey, with no reference to conditions set by Saddam Hussein's government.

The Turkish Defence Minister, Nevzat Ayaz, said: 'As long as it is just humanitarian aid, then I can't see why we would object. We are already allowing things across. But we are against anything that could be seen to be fostering the formation of a Kurdish state.'

If the Turkish response is unclear, there are as yet no clear Western plans to deal with up to 1 million needy Kurds, let alone Shias or other victims of the Western blockade.

Three main ideas seem to be competing. Versions of a UN plan, still before the Secretary-General, are said to put forward one option of aid through Baghdad, if it renews the memorandum of understanding that lapsed in June, or otherwise over the Turkish border; the EC, a big contributor to the dollars 1.2bn given for the Kurds last year, is drawing up its own plan; and diplomats say there is also a possible joint effort by the allied Western powers intent on the downfall of President Saddam.