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2000 In Review: Iraq Sought To End Political Isolation

The past 12 months have seen Iraq increasingly break out of its political isolation even as it continues to forbid the return of UN arms inspectors. As 2000 draws to a close, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at where the Iraq crisis stands now and how it may change over the coming months.

Prague, 15 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For a brief moment at the start of this year, there seemed to be a hope that the UN and Iraq could find a working solution to their ongoing crisis over arms inspections and sanctions.

The year opened with the UN Security Council naming a chief arms inspector acceptable to all its members after months of divisive debate over where they wanted arms monitoring in Iraq to lead. The Council chose Swedish diplomat Hans Blix as the head of a new agency -- UNMOVIC -- to replace the ill-fated UNSCOM, whose inspectors Baghdad banned two years ago.

But as 2000 ends, there is little sign that UNMOVIC's inspectors will soon enter Iraq.

Instead, Baghdad has maintained its refusal to agree on any arms control regime that stops short of a complete lifting of the UN sanctions.

At the same time, the Security Council remains divided over the sanctions policy in general. The United States and Britain want to keep Iraq under strict sanctions to force it to comply with arms inspections. But France, Russia and China favor offering an easing of sanctions to induce Iraq to cooperate.

Yet if 2000 saw little forward movement at the UN, it was still a highly eventful year in the now decade-long Iraq crisis -- which began with Baghdad's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The second half of the year saw an ever-increasing number of humanitarian groups and countries 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. And by year's end the list had grown to include other such high-level official visitors as Russia's foreign minister and Jordan' prime minister.

The visits marked a turning point in many European and Arab countries' willingness to continue observing the long-standing practice of only having air contact with Baghdad with approval from the UN Sanctions Committee. France and Russia said they considered it enough merely to notify the committee of flight plans, while Britain and the United States said permission for flights should still be sought first.

The continuing flights have created a lively debate over whether they are weakening the sanctions regime on Iraq. Baghdad maintained that all those flying in were busting the sanctions. But U.S., British and UN officials insisted that since the flights have only carried humanitarian aid --not banned commercial goods -- the sanctions remain in place.

Still, analysts say the flights are causing concern in Washington and raising pressures on the next US administration to take a harder line on Iraq in the months ahead.

James Phillips, a regional expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says U.S. policy makers are concerned the flights create a new avenue through which sanctions could be bypassed if the planes are not monitored.

"It's a matter of concern because some of these flights, if not monitored, could help Iraq get around the embargo against the development of weapons of mass destruction or missiles. And for that reason I think the U.S. must be concerned."

Phillips predicts any new US administration (headed by either Al Gore or George W. Bush) will come in with a tough stance that could include putting diplomatic pressure on France, Russia and China to tighten the sanctions regime.

"Regardless of which [U.S.] administration comes in, policy towards Iraq will be toughened up. It seems in its declining months the Clinton administration has kind of put Iraq on the shelf. But both Vice President Gore and especially Governor Bush have gone on record supporting a tougher U.S. stance towards Iraq."

He continues:

"I think there is going to be more strain on the UN Security Council. I think [France, Russia and China] are going to incur much greater cost in their relations with Washington if they continue to try to undermine UN sanctions. Whichever administration comes to power, [it] will be much more willing to use the veto in the Security Council when it comes to Iraq."

But analysts say there is no guarantee that Washington can move Paris and Moscow away from favoring an easing of sanctions. Both countries not only argue against the sanctions on humanitarian grounds. They are eager to win lucrative contracts for rebuilding Iraq's oil infrastructure as a way to recover large debts Baghdad still owes them for past arms deals.

The attractions of doing business with Iraq have increased since the UN decided last year to lift limits on Iraqi oil exports under the oil-for-food program. And they have only grown further as the price of crude has continued to climb over the past two years -- with benchmark prices now around $30 a barrel.

That means the coming months could see further replays of one of this year's most dramatic sights. That was the airborne arrival of 14 ministers from Arab countries -- plus business delegations from 45 nations -- for the annual Baghdad trade show in November. The trade delegations included the biggest to date from Russia and EU countries.

Meanwhile, Baghdad this year underlined the political importance that it gives to its oil exports by insisting the UN let it sell oil through the oil-for-food program only for euros -- not for dollars.

Regionally, 2000 saw Iraq move to ease tensions with two long-standing rivals: Syria and Iran.

Baghdad began pumping oil through a pipeline to Syria after an announcement from Damascus last month that it will upgrade its ties with Iraq to full diplomatic relations. The two countries broke ties over Syria's support of Tehran in the Iraq-Iran war and Baghdad's invasion of Kuwait. But they have gradually been building cooperation over the past three years.

Also last month, Baghdad hosted a visit from Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, the first visit by such a top Iranian official since 1990. The two sides discussed friction over cross-border raids by each others' armed opposition groups and over unrepatriated prisoners of war from the Iraq-Iran war. But little in concrete terms emerged from the meeting, leaving any real warming between the two countries for the future.