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U.N. council backs new oil-for-food plan

The U.N. Security Council voted Friday to ease sanctions and allow Iraq to more than double the amount of oil it can sell under a special U.N. program to buy food and medicine for its people.

"It is a clear message that we are not prepared to see the Iraqi people suffer as a consequence of the actions of their leaders," said Britain's U.N. ambassador, John Weston.Under the resolution passed unanimously by the 15-member council, the amount of oil Iraq can sell would increase from $2.1 billion to $5.2 billion over six months.

Iraq has been unable to sell its oil freely since U.N. sanctions were imposed after Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The oil-for-food deal, begun in December 1996, allows Iraq to sell a restricted amount of oil and use the proceeds to buy food and medicine for its 22 million people, suffering under the sanctions.

The council has refused to lift the sanctions until Iraq complies with council resolutions demanding it destroy its weapons of mass destruction.

The timing of the vote was intentional, diplomats said.

"This is an excellent outcome today," Weston said. "It's a very good decision to be announcing at the point that the secretary-general himself arrives in Baghdad."

Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in the Iraqi capital earlier Friday in a bid to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff over weapons inspections. U.N. officials announced later that he would extend his stay in Baghdad an extra day, to Monday, to discuss the new oil plan.

Annan had sought the increase in the oil revenues because U.N. and international aid agencies have repeatedly said the current plan was inadequate to meet all of Iraq's humanitarian needs. The U.N. children's agency has reported widespread malnutrition among Iraqi children.

The proposal cannot be implemented until Iraq submits an aid distribution plan to Annan, and Baghdad has said it can't pump more than $4 billion in crude until repairs are made to its oil fields and pipelines. Its oil facilities were damaged in the Persian Gulf War.

The resolution "is a concrete demonstration that the United Nations, and in particular the members of the Security Council, remain committed to meeting the essential humanitarian needs of all Iraq's people," said America's deputy U.N. ambassador, Peter Burleigh.