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Russia: Opposition Over Iraq Persists, As U.S. Envoy To Arrive in Moscow

  • Gregory Feifer

Russia is maintaining its public opposition to a tough United Nations Security Council resolution on arms inspection in Iraq, faced with increased U.S. lobbying for the measure. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov dismissed a British dossier on weapons production in Iraq as a "propaganda furor" just before Washington sent an envoy to Russia and France to persuade both countries to agree to a newly minted U.S.-British proposal. He arrives in Moscow tomorrow to face a skeptical crowd.

Moscow, 27 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With officials in Moscow warning that Washington's position on Iraq may significantly harm U.S.-Russian relations, the going looks tough for a senior State Department official who will arrive in Russia tomorrow to try to talk Moscow into backing a U.S.-British proposal for a new United Nations Security Council resolution on arms inspections.

The White House is looking to pass tough demands that would authorize the use of military force to impose a change of regime if Baghdad does not comply within two months. But the George W. Bush administration has been slowed in its bid by members of Congress and the international community, who are questioning the wording of the new resolution.

The draft resolution -- expected to be released 30 September -- would require Iraq to give UN inspectors unrestricted access to conduct comprehensive investigations. Baghdad is insisting that the inspectors return under the current Security Council resolution, which limits access to presidential palaces and other areas.

The White House has denounced Baghdad's statements as a ploy to hamstring UN authority.

Washington is launching a major diplomatic effort to convince fellow permanent Security Council members of the importance of the new resolution. Responding to questions on the issue during a 26 September meeting of some of Russia's foreign-policy elite, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow pleaded Washington's case. "I would just like to ask you to understand that Saddam Hussein, by constantly ignoring UN Security Council sanctions and aiming to have access to weapons of mass destruction by any means, represents a threat to global security. I hope understanding that fact will lead, in the end, to an understanding of the methods in the battle against that threat," Vershbow said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair on 24 September released a dossier on the development of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in an attempt to generate support for a new Security Council resolution and a possible attack on Iraq.

Speaking in Moscow on 25 September, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov dismissed the dossier, which has been generally criticized for not providing any significant new information. "Our experts are studying the report, but I believe that only specialists and experts can judge whether or not Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. We have therefore sought the fastest-possible return of the inspectors to Iraq. It therefore seems to us that it is not worth creating a great propaganda furor around this report. We should wait for the conclusions of the experts. Only after that can any conclusions be drawn," Ivanov said.

Vershbow skirted a question yesterday from RFE/RL about whether Washington thought Ivanov's statements constituted any significant hardening of Russia's opposition. "We want to continue to discuss the considerable evidence regarding Saddam's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction with [Foreign] Minister Ivanov and the rest of the Russian government. And I think that the more we review the facts, the more our positions will come together. But we have work to do," Vershbow said.

With Britain now backing the U.S. proposal for a resolution -- a draft of which was circulated in the Security Council yesterday -- Washington must convince the council's other permanent members, Russia, China, and France, to go along with it. A veto from any one member would sink the plan.

France has suggested watering down the demands by issuing two separate resolutions. A largely silent China appears to back the French proposal. Moscow is providing the greatest resistance, saying a new resolution would slow the return of arms inspectors to Iraq.

President Vladimir Putin called yesterday for a quick political resolution to the crisis, restating Russia's support for Iraq's decision last week to readmit weapons inspectors unconditionally. "Russian-Iraqi relations have a long history. We stand for the promptest settlement of the situation surrounding this country [Iraq] through political and diplomatic methods on the basis of existing UN Security Council resolutions and in strict compliance with the principles and norms of international law. The decision to resume the activity of international inspectors in this country opens new opportunities for that," Putin said.

Moscow has often based its opposition to an attack on its economic interests in Iraq, which reportedly owes Russia at least $7 billion in Soviet-era debt.

Washington's envoy, Undersecretary of State for political affairs Marc Grossman, was dispatched after the U.S. government realized it would not be able to force a consensus quickly in the UN.

Grossman left for Paris as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that Washington possesses evidence linking Iraq to Al-Qaeda, a pronouncement that contradicts previous official statements.

Ivanov today said Moscow was not convinced by such claims.

U.S. President Bush, speaking 26 September at the White House, stressed the urgency his administration attaches to taking action against Baghdad. "Each passing day could be the one on which the Iraqi regime gives anthrax or VX nerve gas or, some day, a nuclear weapon to a terrorist ally. We refuse to live in this future of fear," Bush said.

But envoy Grossman will have a hard time convincing Russia.

As the issue comes to a decision next week, Washington and Moscow appear headed for confrontation, unless, as some analysts believe, Russia will back down at the last minute.

For now, the battle lines are still being drawn. Aleksei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee and a senior member of Russia's foreign-policy elite, said the U.S. position on Iraq could lead to significantly worse relations. He spoke at a Moscow conference yesterday. "I don't know how the situation concerning Iraq will play out, but there is a danger that, in the case of certain scenarios of the situation's development, relations between Russia and the West -- the United States along with Europe -- could roll back far beyond that start level that we now put at September 11, 2001," Arbatov said.

Washington, Arbatov added, is only making matters worse by weakening international institutions with its strong-arm tactics.