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Iraq: Aziz Visits Moscow Amid Differences Over UN Policy

  • Charles Recknagel

Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz made a trip to Moscow this week to stress closer economic and political cooperation. But news reports say the talks ran into difficulties over the two countries' opposing positions on what Iraq must do to get sanctions lifted. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports:

Prague, 1 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz's trip to Russia this week began as a strong symbol of how much both countries would like to see an end to the UN sanctions on Baghdad.

Aziz flew into the Russian capital Tuesday for the first time aboard an Iraqi commercial jet -- underlining Moscow's support for loosening the once tight UN bans on air contacts with Baghdad. Previously, Aziz had to begin his travel abroad by first driving overland to Amman.

Russian analysts were quick to note the significance of the fly-in, which brought Aziz to Russia as part of a world tour, stopping first in Damascus and China. To many, the airborne arrival looked like a clear effort by both host and guest to emphasize differences on the UN Security Council over how to apply the sanctions regime.

Irina Zviagelskaya of the International Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Moscow says Russian officials intended the fly-in to be a step forward in Baghdad's efforts to break out of its political isolation.

"What should be noted is that it was probably for the first time that Mr. Tariq Aziz came by Iraqi Airways and it means that Russia made a step forward to ease sanctions which are imposed upon Iraq. This was a breakthrough."

Aziz's flight came as planes from dozens of countries have gone to Baghdad in recent months bearing humanitarian aid or foreign officials without first seeking the approval of the UN sanctions committee.

The US and Britain have criticized the air traffic as violating the UN restrictions on air travel. But Russia, France and China have supported the flights, saying the restrictions only call for planes to file their flight plans with the UN before going.

Yet if Aziz's Moscow trip began with a sign of Iraqi-Russian agreement that UN sanctions should come to an end, strains soon emerged over the different ways the two sides want to reach that goal.

Aziz and Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov held long talks on Wednesday but called off a planned news conference later amid reports from Russia's official Itar-Tass news agency that the talks had been "difficult."

Analysts say the difficulties centered over Moscow's urging Baghdad to bring the sanctions regime to an end by complying with UN Security Council resolutions. Those call for Baghdad to re-admit weapons inspectors -- banned by Iraq two years ago -- before sanctions are lifted. But Baghdad has so far said it will only speak with the UN about ending the sanctions.

Zviagelskaya describes Russia's stance this way:

"Russia believes that there should be a sort of package deal [whereby] Iraq does something positive that is demanded of it by the international community and then the international community eases sanctions, step by step." She continues:

"What is important from Russia's point of view is the fact that Iraq should know that every positive step is linked to the easing of some sanctions."

But if Russia's policy is to urge Iraq to start talking with the UN again about arms inspections, there were few signs this week that Baghdad wanted to heed that advice.

Both sides put out mildly conflicting statements during Aziz's talks with Russian officials. On Wednesday, a Russian foreign ministry spokesman said Aziz had confirmed Iraq is ready to resume dialogue with the UN. But leaving Moscow the next day, Aziz said Iraq categorically opposes resuming UN weapons inspections. He added, however, that Iraq is studying proposals by UN chief Kofi Annan to resume talks.

Beyond focusing on the sanctions regime, Aziz's visit to Moscow also sought to promote trade and economic contacts -- both within the UN oil-for-food program and looking forward to once sanctions are lifted.

Russian energy companies are reported to be keenly interested in helping develop Iraq's oil sector and Moscow sees the profits as one way to recoup thousands of millions of dollars Baghdad still owes Moscow for past arms sales.