Does the US really believe that the future of the planet is threatened if it allows Thermos flasks into Iraq?

There are certain words and phrases that gloriously defy reality. "Tory moderate" or "British tennis champion", for example, are expressions that should only ever be used in jest. It is almost guaranteed that I will start to giggle when I hear "Channel 5" and "news" said in the same breath.

On reading "United Nations" and "peacekeepers" in the same sentence, a contemptuous smirk will often appear. And the prize for the vilest piece of "logic-mongering" must go to the US on the UN sanctions committee, which describes the Iraq oil-for-food programme as "humanitarian".

All exports to Iraq must be scrutinised by the UN, which either allows the items through, "blocks" them, or puts them on "hold". So, in the face of the continuing and genuine humanitarian crisis in Iraq, where more than a million people have died (UN sanctions being the major cause), the fate of many is decided by the Kafkaesque logic of the United States. Of the "holds", 90 per cent are imposed by the US, with the UK contributing the remaining 10 per cent.

The effect of these "holds" has been criticised by senior UN officials. Benon Sevan, the executive director of the UN Office of the Iraq Programme, said: "The improvement of the nutritional and health status of the Iraqi people . . . is being seriously affected as a result of [the] excessive number of holds placed on supplies and equipment for water, sanitation and electricity."

His point is illustrated by a contract for ambulances worth $5m. In December 1999, the Iraqis duly submitted a request to the UN to import the ambulances (com number 601201).

Eighteen months later, the vehicles have still not arrived. The US mission on the committee put the ambulances on "hold" because they contain vacuum flasks, used for keeping plasma or medicines at the correct temperature. These are, in essence, glorified Thermos flasks, but without the tartan pattern. The US objects to them because, it says, they could be used to manufacture weapons.

If the US is prepared to block ambulances, and seriously wants the world to believe that the only thing standing between life and the total annihi-lation of the planet is a Thermos flask, then let the air strikes on the camping equipment retailers begin! Round up the ramblers and anglers! Get UN teams to enforce random inspections of their Thermos flasks to ensure that the Cup-a-Soup hasn't been converted into anthrax. It would take only a rise in the price of Gore-Tex waterproofs for ramblers to get angry enough to unleash a chemical weapon nightmare. Ban all picnics! Ban family outings! Extend the "no-fly zone" to cover any geographical areas where there is a potential to consume warm beverages!

"But this is absurd," the coordinators of these sanctions will say. "You are taking this idea to bizarre and surreal proportions, way past the realms of political reality." Well, you started it! The supreme irony of the flask fiasco is that, because of the black-market economy in Iraq, the Thermos flask is one of many items that are readily available in Baghdad, but unaffordable to most Iraqis.

The new Labour government, embarrassed by the negative publicity that the petty cruelty of UN sanctions attracts, has sought to introduce "smart sanctions". These, officials assure us, will target the Ba'athist regime and reduce the impact on ordinary Iraqis. This tacitly acknowledges that, until now, sanctions have been dumb, creating misery for most Iraqis while ignoring the billion-dollar black market in oil, revenues from which go directly to the Ba'athist elite. Any attempt to rearm Iraq would logically be made using the money raised through black-market oil, rather than using the UN's oil-for-food programme. Surely it is easier to trade illegally than try to convince the UN weapons inspectors that bits of Scud missile are in fact hospital incubators?

Smart or dumb, the effect is the same. Dr Eric Herring, the specialist on Iraqi sanctions at Bristol University, explains that the smart sanctions policy "merely restates the existing position . . . with a new list of what goods Iraq can't, can or might get".

Leaked UN documents, obtained by Herring, show that, in reality, it is still difficult for Iraq to get the most basic goods approved by the sanctions committee. On 12 February this year, the UN Office of the Iraq Programme sought to approve a list of housing materials that could automatically go to Iraq. The UN monitoring, verification and inspection committee approved the list. None of the items on it had previously been considered to have any military potential.

But on 26 February, the US mission blocked the automatic approval of the following items: light switches, three-pin plugs, telephone sockets, door frames, ceramic tiles, window frames and epoxy wall paint. The US did not give a reason why these particular goods should not be automatically approved for a country that has had more munitions dropped on it than were dropped by the Allies in the Second World War.

So I can only guess that the US mission has information that Iraq's elite Republican Guard has infiltrated BBC1's Changing Rooms. Carol Smillie must be a double agent who plans to con an innocent couple from St Ives into turning an Iraqi loft conversion into a plutonium-processing lab. No doubt Handy Andy will wire up a thermonuclear device to a light-dimmer switch that effortlessly blends in with the MDF rococo ceiling rose. Either that, or Iraqi sanctions are creating genocide by means of paperwork and spite.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A dying body attracts vultures