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Iraq: U.S. Downplays Halt Of Oil Exports

The United States yesterday sought to downplay concern following Iraq's suspension of oil exports to protest ongoing UN Security Council talks about suspending the UN embargo against Iraq.

Washington, 24 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- State Department Spokesman James Rubin characterized the Iraqi oil cut-off as a "cynical political maneuver" on the part of Iraqi leaders, who he said resort to this type of tactic from time to time.

Rubin, briefing reporters at the State Department Tuesday, reiterated the U.S. view that Iraq is obstructing the distribution of food and medicine to its people and must provide such relief through the UN oil-for-food program.

Rubin also directed reporters not to read too much significance into the issue, saying Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is accustomed to making this sort of announcement.

Asked about the potential for a worsening humanitarian situation on the ground in Iraq, as a result of the current standoff, here's how Rubin responded:

"There will be no immediate impact on the humanitarian situation because there is a full pipeline of humanitarian goods that have been contracted for and are on their way to Iraq. What this is really about is Iraq flouting the international community and imagining that cynical political devices are more important for their objectives than providing the maximum revenue to provide food and medicine to their people."

Baghdad unexpectedly began halting oil it is allowed to export under the oil-for-food program after the UN Security Council extended the program for only two weeks. The Iraqis were seeking a six-month extension, as in the past.

The Iraqi move to suspend exports pushed oil prices to their highest level since the Gulf Crisis, when Iraq invaded Kuwait nine years ago. Rubin, while admitting to a short term hike, also sought to quell any anxieties that a lengthy stoppage was in the offing.

"We think that any reduction in world oil supplies tends to increase short-term prices. And I would note that Iraq's production is one of many factors in determining world oil surprises. And I think it's fair to point out that the oil price was going up considerably well before the Iraqi announcement."

The permanent five members of the UN Security council -- the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia -- were expected to meet late Tuesday to discuss an overall resolution on Iraq policy that has been deadlocked for months.

Rubin said the draft resolution was gaining increasing support and that the U.S. hoped it would re-establish the maximum consensus possible in the Security Council to send weapons inspectors back to Iraq.

The arms experts, seeking Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, have not been in the country since the December 1998 U.S.-British bombing raids against Iraq.

One of the main disputes is whether or how many disarmament tasks Iraq must fulfill before it can qualify for a suspension of the sanctions. The United States and Britain say key questions must be answered, while Russia and China say once Iraq cooperates with a new UN weapons commission, the sanctions should be eased.

Iraq's long-standing position is that Baghdad already has met all disarmament requirements and that sanctions should be lifted.