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Iraq: France Signals Compromise On UN Sanctions But Divisions Remain Over Inspections

  • Robert McMahon

France has proposed an immediate suspension of economic sanctions on Iraq and a modification of weapons inspections. The proposal signals a move toward compromise among members of the UN Security Council, which had been sharply divided over the war in Iraq. But the United States is stressing that its personnel -- not UN experts -- will be responsible for seeking out weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a view most council members oppose.

United Nations, 23 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- France has opened the UN Security Council's postwar discussions on Iraq by proposing the suspension of economic sanctions and phasing out the oil-for-food program.

The proposals mark a significant step toward the position of the United States by one of the countries that had strongly opposed its military action in Iraq. Washington has called for lifting the 12-year-old sanctions immediately to allow trade and investment to help fuel Iraq's reconstruction, after the U.S.-led coalition ousted the regime of Saddam Hussein.

France's UN ambassador, Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, also proposed in the council yesterday that U.S. weapons experts in Iraq coordinate their work with the UN inspection team pulled from the country ahead of the war last month.

De La Sabliere told reporters the goal is still a final disarmament of Iraq verified by international monitors. But, in the meantime, the French ambassador said, sanctions could be suspended to ease conditions for Iraqi civilians: "The lifting of the sanctions, which is our objective -- I think, the objective of all of us -- is linked to the certification of the disarmament of Iraq. So, meanwhile, we could suspend the sanctions, and we suspend the sanctions and adjust the oil-for-food program with the idea of a phasing out."

De La Sabliere presented the French proposal orally. Further details of the French proposal are not immediately available.

Asked to comment on the proposal, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte told reporters he is looking forward to discussions with his colleagues on the council about ways to lift the sanctions: "Our view is that, in light of the dramatically changed circumstances in Iraq, that sanctions should be lifted as soon as possible. So we now need to work with France and other countries to see how best that can be achieved and how quickly."

The sanctions against Iraq -- set up after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990 -- include an arms embargo, a trade ban, an air embargo, and diplomatic sanctions. Economic sanctions have been steadily eased since the institution of the UN's oil-for-food program in 1996, which allowed Iraq to export oil and import basic necessities.

After the war began, the council extended the program until 12 May under the control of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The council is preparing to act, as soon as today, to extend the program until 3 June.

Russia, another chief opponent of the U.S. action in Iraq, signaled a willingness to discuss the French proposal. Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov noted that the resolutions setting up inspections in Iraq give the council a role in modifying the sanctions regime.

"The French proposal is something that is not against the current procedures as stipulated by the Security Council, and it could be discussed," Lavrov said. "We are ready to discuss it."

But Lavrov repeated Russia's position that UN experts on chemical, biological, nuclear, and ballistic missile programs must return to Iraq to complete their work before sanctions can be fully lifted.

"As far as we are concerned, the only way to verify independently the disarmament of Iraq of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] is for inspectors to tell us so," Lavrov said.

Lavrov said a majority of council members support this view. Britain, the leading U.S. ally both in its military coalition in Iraq and on the council, has also said UN inspectors should return. British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock told reporters yesterday that conditions are not safe enough for UN experts to return to Iraq yet, but he indicated they should return when the situation improves.

But Negroponte said the United States does not, at this moment, envision a role for UN inspectors. He said the military coalition has assumed responsibility for disarming Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction: "For the time being and for the foreseeable future, we visualize [disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction] as being a coalition activity."

At latest report, U.S. military forces had not uncovered any banned weapons programs in Iraq. The United States has been recruiting current and former UN inspectors from the United States, Britain, and Australia to participate in an inspection unit that will verify any discoveries.

Negroponte told the council that with the improvement in the security situation in Iraq, U.S. inspection teams will expand their efforts. He said that would include interviewing Iraqi scientists freed from the controls of the regime, examining documents, and visiting suspected weapons sites.

Chief UN inspector Hans Blix, meanwhile, told the council his monitors could return to Iraq within about two weeks of receiving instructions from the council.

Blix, speaking later to reporters, was careful to note the credentials of the U.S.-picked inspectors. But he stressed the need for an independent verification of Iraq's weapons.

"We are convinced about the objectivity and the determination of the inspectors who are there for the coalition forces," Blix said. "I have not the slightest reason to doubt them. But, at the same time, I am also convinced that the world and the Security Council, which has dealt with this issue for over 10 years, that they would like to have the inspection and verification which bear the imprint of that independence and of some institution that is authorized by the whole international community."

The director of the UN's nuclear regulatory agency, Muhammad el-Baradei, was more direct. He issued a statement late yesterday stressing that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should resume its work in Iraq as soon as possible.

He said the IAEA is the sole organization with the legal powers to verify Iraq's nuclear disarmament, derived from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Security Council resolutions.