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Iraq: Flights To Baghdad Stop Short Of Breaching Sanctions

As a steady stream of planes flies into Baghdad's international airport, there is growing concern that the UN sanctions regime on Iraq may be eroding. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with regional analysts to assess the impact of the flights on the sanctions.

Prague, 7 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Since mid-August more than 40 international flights have landed at Baghdad's airport. Most have carried humanitarian aid from Arab countries to express sympathy for Iraqis hard-hit by UN sanctions.

But last week the flights took on a faster-paced, more business-like tone as planes arrived from a dozen countries at once. The passengers included trade delegations with representatives from over 1,500 firms. Their destination was Baghdad's annual trade fair and their goal was to win Iraqi contracts under the UN oil-for-food program.

The fly-ins, which included Jordan's prime minister, appeared to signal readiness among a growing number of states to renew trade ties with Iraq to the maximum permitted under UN sanction resolutions.

Particularly notable at the trade fair were delegations from Russia, China and EU countries such as France, Germany, and Belgium. Their presence underlined a long-standing desire by Moscow, Paris and Beijing to take a softer approach to sanctions than that favored by Washington and London. The sanctions have been in place since 1990, when the UN slapped trade and travel embargoes on Baghdad to punish its invasion of Kuwait.

Terrence Taylor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London says the increasing numbers of flights are eroding the sanctions regime, which as recently as last year saw the Baghdad airport closed to all but UN-approved visitors.

"It is part of the erosion of the sanctions regime, in other words, the rather draconian application of the sanctions regime which has been going on certainly up until the end of last year. So it is a wedge pushing the door open and does make it increasingly difficult for the United States and the United Kingdom, who are the strongest proponents of the maintenance of the sanctions regime."

The planes flying into Baghdad have challenged the sanctions regime by refusing to wait for the approval of the UN sanctions committee before taking off. Doing so, they have adopted a French and Russian-backed argument that flights carrying humanitarian aid to Iraq do not need permission from the committee and only need to notify it of their flight plans. That interpretation is opposed by Washington and London.

But so far none of the flights have gone as far as carrying commercial items to Baghdad, something the UN trade sanctions expressly forbid. Nor have they transported top Iraqi officials out of the country, something else expressly forbidden under the UN travel sanctions.

David Mack of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. says that means the flights constitute an erosion -- but not breach -- of the sanctions regime.

"The flights themselves are not explicitly prohibited by the sanctions. And I think it would be a stretch to say this is a critical development. Obviously, people can have a lot of discussions about doing business. It becomes a violation of sanctions [only] when people are actually engaging in trade or financial activities that are explicitly prohibited."

He continues: "There is not a lot of incentive for people to violate the sanctions except if they are sending in items which are clearly military in nature or dual-use. Those, of course, are the items which the sanctions regime is intended to prohibit and so far as I know the sanctions regime still functions effectively in regard to such items."

Analysts say the UN Security Council members -- including France, Russia, and China -- remain committed to maintaining the line against any express violations of the sanctions despite their differences over policy toward Iraq.

Taylor says the Security Council members do not want to allow the fate of the sanctions to be decided outside the UN because that would compromise the body's authority in other international conflicts.

"There is a reluctance to go too far because of the spin-off effects into sanctions in other areas, particularly on the part of France and other European countries which might be tempted to go in that direction, and even also Asian countries as well. Because in other areas they want to be seen as legitimate and responsible."

Analysts say the current practice of many governments to challenge -- but not breach -- the sanctions is likely continue for some time. The pattern offers benefits but few risks for both the countries which permit the flights and for Baghdad.

For Arab and European governments, such gestures help calm public opinion against the sanctions. At the same time, they help the countries which make them win lucrative Iraqi oil-for-food contracts.

For Baghdad, the gestures build the impression that sanctions are ending even as Iraq and the UN remain as deadlocked as ever over the issue. Baghdad has refused to admit arms inspectors for almost two years even though, under UN resolutions, lifting the sanctions depends on inspectors verifying Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction.

That leaves the future of the sanctions regime still far from resolved, whether or not humanitarian flights go to Iraq without waiting for UN approval.

London remains committed to maintaining the sanctions in place. And both presidential candidates in the United States have signaled they will continue Washington's hard-line stance toward Iraqi president Saddam Hussein if elected.