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UN: Despite New Flights, Iraq Sanctions Not Seen As Crumbling

The perception has emerged that UN sanctions on Iraq are crumbling, mainly due to the resumption of some international and domestic flights in Iraq. But Western diplomats and UN officials insist that the sanctions are firmly in place and that Iraq remains heavily dependent on a UN humanitarian program for food, medicine, and essential goods. As part of RFE/RL's ongoing coverage on Iraqi sanctions, correspondent Joe Lauria examines the latest developments from a UN perspective.

United Nations, 20 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The actions of Russia and France have been the key cause for speculation that the 10-year UN sanctions regime against Iraq are eroding.

Both countries -- permanent Security Council members -- initiated international flights to Baghdad this autumn, clearing the way for dozens of flights from other nations and giving the Iraqi government hope that world opinion is shifting on the sanctions issue. Russia and France repeatedly raise concerns about the toll sanctions are taking on Iraqi civilians. But both countries have billions of dollars in contracts with Iraq under the oil-for-food program.

Russian President Vladimir Putin renewed his government's opposition to the sanctions in a meeting last week with Iraq's new ambassador to Moscow, Mozher Al-Duri. He provided these encouraging words for the Iraqi government:

"We accept only the political, diplomatic path to solve differences. Consequently and purposefully, we ask for sanctions on Iraq to be lifted as soon as possible and the returning of the country to a normal life. I would like to stress that this position of the Russian Federation finds more and more supporters in the UN."

There are other apparent signs of a weakening of sanctions. Iraq says it will repair an oil pipeline with Syria, which recently said it will restore full diplomatic ties with Iraq. Some experts believe the oil pumped through this pipeline might fall outside the UN's oil-for-food control mechanism. But this is not clear.

The Security Council already tends to ignore oil smuggled to pro-Western Jordan and Turkey, said one European diplomat, but may not look away at Iraq smuggling with Syria. Yet it is uncertain if Damascus would risk subverting UN resolutions by paying Iraq directly for its oil.

Yet another perceived victory for Iraq was the Security Council's decision to grant Iraq's request to be paid in euros, rather than dollars, from the UN's escrow account into which all proceeds from Iraqi oil sales are deposited. But U.S. diplomats say Washington never objected to this very symbolic move on Iraq's part.

In another apparent challenge to sanctions, Iraq asked this week that buyers of its crude oil pay a 50-cent a barrel surcharge that would bypass the UN account and go directly to Iraq. This would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars annually for Iraq if the buyers accepted this. If they refuse, Baghdad says, they would lose rights to new contracts by December 1. But UN officials and oil traders say Iraq appears to be making an empty threat.

But U.S. and European diplomats, as well as UN officials, insist the sanctions are firmly in place. They imply that some Western reporters and experts are being misled by appearances.

Meanwhile, the United Nations continues to train new teams of inspectors. Fifty-five are finishing training in France, where as part of the course, they visited chemical and missile factories in the suburbs of Paris. A similar course for another group was held in the U.S. earlier this year. There are now about 120 trained inspectors waiting for word to go back to Iraq.

Iraq's strongest opponent on the Security Council, the United States, has signaled it will not push forcefully for new inspections in the near future. Diplomats from council nations say the United States will not be expected to lead the council on Iraq until at least after a new U.S. president in sworn in early next year.