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UN: U.S. And Russia Remain Far Apart On Iraq Sanctions, Inspections

The United Nations has given Iraq an additional two weeks to sell oil and purchase food and medicine under a compromise plan. But a long-term solution to economic sanctions still remains elusive. At issue is whether Iraq will permit the return of UN arms inspectors. RFE/RL's Joe Lauria reports from the United Nations.

United Nations, 22 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The UN Security Council will allow Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil to buy food and medicine for an additional two weeks under a compromise worked out last week between Russia and the United States. But the contentious issue of returning UN weapons inspectors to the country and suspending sanctions, which has helped cool U.S.-Russia relations, is still far from being resolved.

The council voted unanimously to permit Iraq to continue selling oil until Dec. 4, when the panel must again take up the issue. The so-called food-for-oil program, begun in 1996, would have expired without council action.

Under the plan, Iraq is allowed to sell $5.26 billion of oil every six months. The proceeds go into a UN escrow account in France from which the UN directs spending on humanitarian aid for Iraqi civilians. Average Iraqis have been facing more than nine years UN sanctions imposed on the country after its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Despite the temporary deal, Russia and the U.S. remain far apart on the issue of returning the inspectors and suspending Iraqi sanctions, a key problem in Moscow and Washington's deteriorating relations. The former Cold War adversaries clashed last Thursday over Russia's military campaign in Chechnya, with U.S. President Bill Clinton bluntly criticizing Russian President Boris Yeltsin before heads of state at the 54-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Istanbul.

Says Richard Shultz, director of strategic studies program at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.: "U.S.-Russia relations are about as low as they have been since the end of the Cold War."

The U.S. and Russia have disagreed over Iraq for more than a year, but their differences over Chechnya have combined with Iraq into a volatile mix. Russia reportedly offered to cooperate on Iraq at the Security Council if the U.S. agreed not to bring up Chechnya in the council.

The State Department is said to have rejected the offer out of hand, saying the two issues cannot be linked. Sergei Lavrov, Russia's UN ambassador, denied the report of a deal. Said Lavrov: "There could be no link between Iraq and Chechnya. You should be used by now to all sorts of leakages from Washington. I lost my count whether a leak is genuine of fabricated."

Given Russia's dire economic circumstances, withholding IMF loans may be the biggest lever Washington can pull to refocus Moscow's views on both Chechnya and Iraq.

Shultz says: "If we tried to use that against Russia it could backfire. It has to be done behind the scenes, not by putting it in their eyeball." He says such a move could feed resurgent nationalism in Russia, something Washington would like to avoid.

However, time may not be on the U.S. side when it comes to Iraq. As long as inspectors stay out of the country, Iraq could more easily rearm.

The Pentagon said that Baghdad may be rebuilding its chemical and biological weapons.

At issue is the timetable for suspending sanctions once weapons inspectors return. There have been no inspectors in Iraq since last December, when they were pulled out ahead of punitive air strikes by Britain and the U.S. against Iraq for not cooperating with inspections.

Washington and London insist Iraq be declared free of weapons of mass destruction by the inspectors before all sanctions can be lifted. They have offered to suspend sanctions in verifiable stages as Iraq accepts new inspectors and cooperates with them.

U.S. diplomats say Paris has been flexible in discussing a phased suspension. But Moscow, who, like Paris, stands to gain economically by resumed contacts with Baghdad, wants the sanctions suspended as soon as Iraq accepts a new inspection team. The length of the suspension is also in dispute.

The entire deal is contingent on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein allowing inspectors back into the country. Hussein has repeatedly said that wouldn't happen until sanctions are removed. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said late last week: "Iraq rejects any resolution which does not meet its legitimate right to have the embargo lifted."

The council's permanent five members, the U.S., Britain, France, China, and Russia, met several days to try to hammer out a deal. They have discussed asking Secretary-General Kofi Annan to travel to Baghdad to get Hussein's agreement.

The U.S. had wanted to establish a new six-month phase of food-for-oil, but Russia fought to remove any cap on how much oil Iraq could export. That would have in effect lifted the oil embargo, though profits would still have been controlled by the UN.

Moscow also wants to increase the amount of money Baghdad can spend to repair its oil industry from $300 million to $600 million, a move Washington opposes. When Russia and the U.S. failed to agree, the two-week compromise was reached to allow more time to work on the comprehensive resolution.

But American officials appear to be adamant that there will be no more temporary extensions after Dec. 4. They say they want to formally roll over the food-for-oil plan for six months.