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Iraq: Foreign Minister Rejects UN Offer On Sanctions

Iraq has again rejected an offer from the United Nations Security council that would have suspended economic sanctions had Baghdad agreed to arms inspections by the UN. RFE/RL correspondent Joe Lauria reports.

United Nations, 22 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's foreign minister Thursday reiterated Baghdad's opposition to a Security Council offer that could lead to the suspension of economic sanctions in exchange for a resumption of UN weapons inspections.

The Security Council made its offer in resolution 1284 last December in which it also lifted the ceiling on the amount of oil Iraq could produce in the UN's oil-for-food program.

But Foreign Minister Mohammed Said Al-Sahaf told the UN General Assembly debate Thursday that 1284 "does not represent a solution at all, nor is it, in essence, anything more than a deliberate ploy to get through the American anti-Iraq policy as embodied in the perpetuation of the embargo to an unforeseeable point of time."

"We have therefore clearly declared that we shall not deal with this resolution," Al-Sahaf said.

Without Iraqi cooperation it is doubtful that UN weapons inspections could resume minus a serious confrontation, UN officials say.

Al-Sahaf's declaration comes at a time of growing tensions in the Gulf region. Iraq has accused Kuwait of drilling oil from its territory -- a charge eerily similar to one made before Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. An Iraqi plane last week also violated Saudi Arabia's air space.

Officials here are divided on whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein means business or is merely bluffing.

The developing crisis surrounding soaring oil prices has also been thrown into the mix. Iraq has refused to place orders for spare parts for its oil industry, even though the UN approved such purchases after Baghdad had long argued for them. Some analysts speculate that Saddam Hussein could reduce his oil output to help spur an international crisis.

The UN slapped its oil and economic embargo on Iraq just days after the invasion. The sanctions must remain in place until UN inspectors declare Iraq free of weapons of mass destruction and the means to produce them.

Under the food-for-oil deal, Iraq is allowed to sell as much oil as it wants, but the UN controls the proceeds. They are to pay for humanitarian relief, Gulf War reparations and for weapons inspections. The U.S. and Britain, however, have blocked many purchase requests by Iraq, fearing these items could have a military as well as a civilian purpose.

There have been no weapons inspections in Iraq since December 1998, when the UN pulled its team out ahead of U.S. and British air strikes that were designed to force Iraq to cooperate. Since then, the UN inspection team has been reconstituted under a new name and a new leader, Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Blix is to address the Security Council today (Friday) on the readiness of his team to resume inspections. Blix said in a recent report that his team is essentially set to go. But diplomats here say the U.S. administration does not want a showdown before the U.S. elections in November. If the Council gives Blix the go-ahead, it would likely lead to a confrontation with Iraq.

Al-Sahaf made that clear Thursday to the General Assembly. He said: "We in Iraq have suffered and continue to suffer from the domination and abusive actions of the hegemonic powers headed by the United States of America. Our deep faith in the rightness of our position explains the steadfastness shown by our country and our people in the face of the might of the unipolar power."

If the council stalls Blix, it risks being seen as weak and keeps the ball in its court.

Meanwhile, French and Russian policy continues to chip away at the sanctions. A Russian plane carrying humanitarian aid, but also ten oil industry executives, landed in Baghdad last week in defiance of the Council sanctions, only notifying the UN after it had landed. A French plane is due to take off for Baghdad today (Friday) and as of today had not yet notified the council.

Sympathy for the plight of the Iraqi population continues to grow despite evidence presented by Washington that Saddam Hussein is stockpiling aid in warehouses and is spending food-for-oil money for his own good, such as 12,000 recently purchased cases of whiskey. "I don't know if that is food or medicine," quipped U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright here last week.

But Hussein has rejected entry for a special UN mission to report on the plight of his people, leading some here to speculate that he may kick out the existing UN humanitarian team. And that would only send tensions in the same direction as oil prices -- up.