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Iraq: Ivanov's Visit To Baghdad A Bid To Build Closer Ties

Prague, 13 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov's visit to Baghdad today and tomorrow highlights Moscow's determination to build closer relations despite the ongoing deadlock in the UN over Iraq policy.

The visit is intended to underline Moscow's argument that Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction and that sanctions should be eased or lifted on humanitarian grounds. That argument is backed in the UN Security Council by France and China but opposed by the United States and Britain.

At the same time, the visit will focus on Russia's commercial interest in helping Iraq develop its oil sector. Moscow is eager to win lucrative contracts for rebuilding Iraq's oil infrastructure and for exploiting new Iraqi oil fields. Such opportunities have grown since the UN decided late last year to lift limits on Iraqi oil exports under the oil-for-food program.

George Joffe, a regional analyst at the London School of Economics, calls Ivanov's visit a measure of how much Moscow's role in the Iraq crisis has changed since the UN imposed sanctions on Baghdad following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The last Russian foreign minister to visit Iraq was Andrei Kozyrev, who went in 1995 to urge Baghdad to recognize UN resolutions regarding Kuwait's borders. Joffe says Moscow at that time was eager to show it could still play the role of a key regional broker despite the collapse of the Soviet Union. Joffe says:

"At that time the Russians were anxious to demonstrate that they could mediate where the United States could not and that their good offices were therefore worth paying attention to."

Joffe continues:

"On this occasion, it is really very different. Under the new president [Vladimir Putin], there is a determination to argue that Russia is, in fact, an independent player in terms of foreign policy and therefore, in a sense, the Russians are anxious not only to gain commercial advantage but to demonstrate that they are, in fact, for Iraq a major potential ally. And, as such, concerns about American policy in the region no longer apply."

The visit by Ivanov is the latest in a string of high-level fly-ins to Baghdad which are challenging Baghdad's political isolation. In August, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez became the first head of state to visit Baghdad since the 1991 Gulf War. Jordan's prime minister visited Baghdad this month.