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The Rediff Interview/P J Sebastian

March 26, 2003

As war rages in Iraq P J Sebastian spends his days and nights in front of television, watching the destruction of a land he served in for six years.

Sebastian was the first Indian to be appointed United Nations observer for the Oil for Food Programme in Iraq. The programme, funded exclusively with proceeds from Iraqi oil exports, was beginning to mitigate the suffering of the Iraqis when the latest war broke out.

Sebastian who travelled across Iraq overseeing the implementation of the programme along with a team of 150 UN observers -- including five Indians -- laments how a land of riches is today a country of poverty, war and destruction.

In an exclusive interview with Deputy Managing Editor George Iype, Sebastian shares his experiences of working in Saddam's Iraq.

How were you appointed UN observer for the Oil for Food Programme in Iraq?

I have been working for the UN since 1975. I have worked earlier in Somalia and Sudan on various humanitarian missions. When the UN launched the Oil for Food programme after the first Gulf War in 1991 I was called to join it. In fact, the programme got started in February 1997. I was one of the first UN observers who landed in Baghdad in 1997. Initially, I was in Baghdad for two years. Then I worked in northern Iraq -- in Kurdistan -- for four years. Last year, I got transferred to Baghdad once again. But in the wake of the war we were told to leave Iraq.

What is the Oil for Food programme? How is it being implemented in Iraq?

The program has been established by the UN Security Council to alleviate the sufferings of the people who are under economic sanctions in Iraq. In the initial stages of the programme, Iraq was permitted to sell $2 billion worth of oil every six months, but two-thirds of that amount was used to meet Iraq's humanitarian needs. In 1998, the limit on the level of Iraqi oil exports under the programme was raised to $5.26 billion every six months.

As of now, 72 per cent of Iraqi oil export proceeds fund the humanitarian Oil for Food programme. Of this, 59 per cent is earmarked for contracting supplies and equipment by the Iraqi government for the 15 central and southern governorates, and 13 per cent for the three northern governorates.

The UN has been spending a minute percentage of the income from the programme -- roughly 0.8 percent -- for the weapons inspection programme.

How did the UN manage the programme?

Under the programme the UN oversees the sale of Iraqi oil and accounts for that and puts that money in an account called Escrow Account and the money is for humanitarian purposes of the suffering people. Initially, we started by supplying food and medicines, which were the most important items required for the suffering people. Then the UN programme spread to other areas such as agriculture, education, water and electricity.

What was your specific function as UN observer in Iraq?

My specific duty was that of a geographical observer. I along with a team of 150 other observers kept a close watch on the implementation of the UN programme. I travelled across Iraq, especially to northern Iraq, where the Kurds are opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein.

It is said the Saddam Hussein regime misused the Oil for Food programme.

Misused, in a sense, is not the right expression. As a UN observer, I would say there were questions that were not correctly answered by the Saddam Hussein government. I cannot say the Iraqi government misused the Oil for Food programme because I need tangible proof for that. Of course, there have been possibilities of misuse. The UN being a very responsible organisation, we calculate the food requirement of the 23 million people in Iraq.

A normal human being requires about 1,500-kilo calories per day to survive. Iraq being a developed country at that time required much more food. The UN calculation was that an Iraqi required around 3,000-kilo calories of food items.

The UN has been supplying this food to Iraqis but still we find malnutrition and suffering among the people. Why? Because probably the food supply may not be reaching the people. Based on the interviews and interactions with the Iraqis I had, we, the UN observers, recommended that Iraqis need more protein food. We also proposed tinned milk for the children in Iraq. The UN began feeding these children, but still there is malnutrition across the country.

Why? Yes, there may be corruption and bungling at the government level. I do not know. I am not against Iraq. But I knew the children of Iraq had been deprived of food though the UN supplied it in plenty.

What are your experiences working with Iraqi officials for the last six years?

I dealt with many Iraqi officials. They like Indians and we are treated very well. They feel Indians are pro-Iraq and therefore the Iraqis love us Indians.

Did you ever feel the Saddam Hussein government is very brutal and cruel towards the Iraqis?

These things are very difficult to establish, but indications are there. Iraq is the only country (in the Middle East) which is secular. Anywhere you go in Iraq you find liquor shops. People are free in Iraq. But lately, I suspect religious fundamentalism has been creeping into Iraq. But people in Iraq are always under fear. That is what happens when you live under the rule of a dictator.

When we reached Baghdad we were asked to be careful while talking because Iraqi security has set up listening devices across streets. While I was travelling in Baghdad, before the war broke out, I asked my driver: "Hey man, will the war take place?" The driver put his forefinger to his lips and told me to keep quiet. He said later there are listening devices all around the roads.

Anyone who says Saddam Hussein is the best thing to happen to Iraq is not speaking the truth. It is the fear of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein that forces people to silently agree with whatever he has been doing all these years. 99.9 per cent was the national election result in Iraq [in favour of Saddam]. How could that be? That means nobody in Iraq opposed Saddam Hussein?

It is the fear of life that reigns in Iraq. That is my experience in Iraq. I have lots of Iraqi friends because I can speak Arabic. In the last six years none of the Iraqi staff working with us has invited us to their houses. If they invite us, the next day, the security people will question them.

Do you think Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction?

I am not a specialist on this subject. I worked on the UN humanitarian mission. So technically, I do not know about weapons of mass destruction. UN weapons inspectors were in Iraq. But they could not find anything. Maybe the UN inspectors were true. But nobody believes Saddam Hussein. That is why America started the war in Iraq. There may be prohibited weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein bombed Halabja in the Sulemania governorate in Iraq years back. Some 5,000 people died on the spot and 25,000 died later. Deformity among Iraqi children in the region is the biggest concern of the UN there. I have worked there. I have seen the people suffer the after-effects of Saddam Hussein's bombardment of his own people in Iraq. So he may have the weapons even now. Being a dictator, probabilities are that he has the weapons.

But every big power in the world has biological weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. So what is the big deal that Saddam Hussein has it?

Was the American war on Iraq the right thing to happen?

As a UN observer I feel the war should have been through UN resolutions. America is showing its muscle. But that is how the world is. If I am more powerful I will play with the lives of others.

What has happened to the Oil for Food programme, now that war has started?

The UN has suspended the programme for the time being.

Will it be renewed?

I do not know. I am not competent to talk about it.

Will you go back to Iraq?

There will be reconstruction in Iraq when the war gets over. It could be through the UN. I have lots of experience in the UN and I may be called to Iraq once again.

Iraq photograph: Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

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