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Iraq Nixes U.N. Pilgrimage Proposal

February 13, 1999

UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ Baghdad rejected a U.N. proposal to allow thousands of Iraqis to make the annual pilgrimage to Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia, diplomats said Friday.

The U.N. Iraq Sanctions Committee had proposed disbursing $44 million from Iraq’s oil sales _ $2,000 for each of the 22,000 Iraqis hoping to take part in this year’s pilgrimage _ either in travelers checks or vouchers through a third-party.

But in a letter to the committee, the Iraqi government rejected the proposal and reiterated its call to have the money sent directly to the central bank, said a spokesman for the Netherlands’ U.N. Mission, which chairs the committee.

The sanctions committee insists that sending money directly to the Iraqi central bank violates U.N. economic sanctions imposed after Baghdad’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Last year, Iraq made the same demand. It was rejected by the committee, so only Iraqis who could pay for themselves were able to make the pilgrimage, or hajj.

The committee monitors the U.N. oil-for-food program, which allows Iraq to export limited amounts of oil _ $5.2 billion worth over six months _ to buy humanitarian goods for the Iraqi people. Its proposal would use money from the program to fund the pilgrimage.

Since its inception in 1996, Iraq has resisted the oil-for-food program, saying it was designed to justify and prolong sanctions that Baghdad wants lifted.

Every able-bodied Muslim is required to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in his lifetime if he can afford it.

Iraq says most Iraqis cannot afford the cost of traveling to the holy sites and living expenses for what is typically a visit of around two weeks.

Although some Muslim countries have subsidized pilgrimage programs, diplomats said Iraq did not have a subsidy program for pilgrims before 1996.

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