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Iraq: U.S., Britain Step Up Talk Of 'Smart' Sanctions

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's tour of the Middle East last weekend highlighted a desire by many in the new Bush administration to re-energize sanctions on Iraq by easing them on commercial items but tightening them on military goods. Now Britain, too, is signaling it may favor a similar change in policy. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the British position and how it is adding momentum to the drive for redefining the sanctions regime.

Prague, 2 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- After three days of talks with Arab leaders, Colin Powell returned to Washington from the Mideast this week saying the U.S. is prepared to promote a substantial loosening of economic sanctions on Iraq.

But he said there are two caveats.

The first condition is that the international community must tighten measures to prevent Iraq from obtaining military goods and from smuggling oil outside of the UN oil-for-food program. Such measures would have to include better controls at Iraq's borders so that the UN can more closely monitor what enters the country.

The second condition is that U.S. President George Bush has yet to consider Powell's proposal and that Washington must still confer with many other countries before Bush makes any decision.

Powell's trip marks the beginning of what could be a significant change in Washington's previous stance of maintaining both tight economic and military trade bans on Iraq to force it to cooperate on arms inspections.

That position, which has been supported by Britain in the UN Security Council, is opposed by France, Russia, and China, the three other council permanent members. They favor an easing or lifting of the sanctions to induce Iraq to readmit UN arms monitors, whom Baghdad banned from the country more than two years ago.

Paris, Moscow, and Beijing also criticize the humanitarian cost of the sanctions as too high over their now more than 10-year lifetime. The UN began sanctions against Baghdad in 1990 following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, with their lifting tied to Iraq proving it has no more weapons of mass destruction.

The success of Powell's initiative will depend mostly on a debate yet to be waged within Washington itself -- where there are strong camps both in the Bush administration and in Congress for keeping all sanctions on Iraq unchanged. But international pressure for easing the sanctions may also prove to be important, particularly if it comes from America's closest allies.

Last week -- just before Powell returned with strong Arab support for easing the sanctions -- Britain signaled it, too, may be ready for some relaxation of the sanctions regime.

Britain's junior foreign office minister Brian Wilson told reporters that Britain is anxious to ease the supply of humanitarian goods to Iraq under the UN oil-for-food program and block only those goods which could have military as well as civilian items.

Wilson's remarks were seen by many British papers as backing the so-called "smarter sanctions" regime Powell describes. Wilson spoke just before Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met near Washington to discuss, among other issues, their policy toward Iraq.

The Bush administration's talk of re-energizing international support for sanctions, combined with U.S. and British bombing of Iraqi air defenses last month, has led to speculation that Washington regards smarter sanctions and tighter external policing of Iraq as the best way to compensate for the continued absence of UN arms inspectors.

But some analysts say that it remains too early to say just what the Bush administration's policy on Iraq and arms inspections will be.

Neil Partrick, a policy expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says many in Washington, including Secretary Powell, still want to see arms inspectors return to work.

"I am not sure there is a clear strategy yet evolved here which combines re-energized, re-focused sanctions or smarter sanctions with a tougher, external policing role. I think there is a genuine desire at least in part of the American administration -- [and] I don't think this has quite resolved itself yet -- to actually get weapons inspectors back in."

But he adds:

"If those inspectors cannot be returned, and obviously there are some arguments that it is going to be very, very difficult, then there is a logic in toughening up the external policing, and at the same time making the policy less embarrassing by making sanctions more focused on the regime than hurting the people in the way that they appear to have done so."

This week, the difficulty of getting UN arms inspectors back into Baghdad was again highlighted in meetings between top UN officials and an Iraqi delegation led by Foreign Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahaf. The Iraqi diplomat restated his country's rejection of the UN's 1999 resolution that created a modified arms control agency, UNMOVIC, which was meant to be more acceptable to Iraq than its barred predecessor, UNSCOM.

Following Al-Sahaf's statement, UNMOVIC chief Hans Blix told reporters his agency is now considering using satellite imagery to try to monitor Iraq's weapons programs in the absence of ground inspections.

With almost no likelihood of arms monitors entering Iraq soon, the debate over what to do about Iraqi sanctions policy is only likely to continue to grow in the coming months.

The State Department pushed ahead with exploring international support for smart sanctions in meetings between Assistant Secretary of State Edward Walker and Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem in Ankara yesterday.

The U.S. diplomat said Washington wants to find ways for sanctions to have less impact on the people of Iraq but to still maintain controls on weapons development.

Ankara, like many other U.S. allies in the Middle East, has expressed discontent with existing sanctions on Iraq, saying they unfairly target Iraqi civilians and have damaged the Turkish economy.

Turkey, along with Syria and other neighbors of Iraq, provide smuggling routes for Iraqi oil. The smuggling earns Baghdad some $2 billion a year outside of the oil-for-food program, significantly weakening the sanctions regime.

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