UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- In a move sought by Iraq at a critical transition, the Security Council voted unanimously Monday to maintain U.N. protection for billions of dollars of Iraqi assets against seizure by governments, companies or individuals until the end of 2009.
Iraq's financial assets, oil shipments and property are currently shielded by a U.N. resolution authorizing the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq. The U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31 and is being replaced by a new U.S.-Iraq security pact, but the Iraqi government wanted the U.N. protection of its assets to continue so it sought a new resolution.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wrote to council members that the government inherited debts and claims from Saddam Hussein's 23-year rule and has made "great progress" in settling them. But he said "much remains to be done" and that the government needs its oil money and other assets.
"Oil revenues constitute 95 percent of government resources," al-Maliki wrote, "and these claims have an impact on reconstruction and the economic transformations taking place in Iraq, and consequently pose a grave threat to Iraq's stability and security and by extension to international peace and security."
Revenues from Iraq's oil and natural gas exports are held in the Development Fund for Iraq set up in 2003. It has about $20 billion, from which the Iraqi government withdraws as required. The Iraqi central bank's foreign reserves, more than $40 billion, are in another fund.
The resolution adopted Monday keeps the fund operating and authorizes the International Advisory and Monitoring Board to continue overseeing it until Dec. 31, 2009.
It extends a provision in a 2003 Security Council resolution stating that "petroleum, petroleum products and natural gas originating in Iraq shall be immune ... from legal proceedings against them and not be subject to any form of attachment, garnishment or execution" until delivered to the purchaser.
The resolution grants the same immunity and protections to Iraqi assets from Saddam's regime - but not for "any final judgment arising out of a contractual obligation entered into by Iraq after June 30, 2004."
Similar legal protection under an executive order signed by President George W. Bush expires in May, and Iraq is expected to seek an extension of that order as well.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad welcomed the progress that Iraq has made, saying "the number of attacks are down, Iraqi capabilities are up."
He said the resolution "helps facilitate more progress" by giving immunity to the funds that the government can use for development.
Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the council after the vote that without legal protection, "the functioning of the Iraqi government and the current stability could be seriously endangered."
Looking ahead, Zebari said, "it is with cautious confidence that we enter into a new phase of security arrangements beyond United Nations mandate of support."
Under the new U.S.-Iraq security pact, American forces are required to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30 and the entire country by Jan. 1, 2012.
Zebari said Iraq continues to need "a significant level of security and military support" and additional efforts to build up the country's security forces.
"Our hard-won achievements have to be passed on and made durable," he said. "The threats to our fledgling democracy persist."
"Although appalling terror attacks fail to ignite the same spiral of sectarian conflict we experienced in recent years, any premature military withdrawals would leave behind a vulnerable vacuum that would be exploited to destabilize Iraq and threaten the entire region," he warned.
"Iraq urges gradual measures and responsible security transitions," Zebari said.