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Iraq: Blair, Putin Meet For Discussions On Postwar Period

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is in Moscow today to discuss the future of Iraq. The fence-mending visit comes as Washington is pushing a United Nations Security Council resolution backing the U.S.-led military coalition now running Iraq and ending UN control over the country's oil revenues. Russia is helping lead opposition to the measure, saying the UN must play the central role in Iraq and retain control over oil sales.

Moscow, 29 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair is in Moscow today for several hours to discuss the future of Iraq with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Blair's brief visit is part of an attempt to ease long-standing disagreements over Iraq -- particularly over who will control its lucrative oil revenues in the short term -- as the issue heads back for debate in the United Nations Security Council.

Putin administration deputy chief of staff Sergei Prikhodko told Interfax yesterday the two leaders would "discuss questions of cooperation in the UN Security Council on the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, as well as the role of the UN itself in this process."

Washington is currently pushing a Security Council resolution that would lift sanctions imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The measures would end the oil-for-food program and with it the UN's control over Iraq's oil revenues.

The resolution would also back the role of the U.S.-led military coalition now running Iraq ahead of the creation of an Iraqi interim government.

U.S. President George W. Bush yesterday addressed Iraqi Americans on the country's future. "The Iraqi people will choose their own leaders and their own government," Bush said. "America has no intention of imposing our form of government or our culture. Yet we will ensure that all Iraqis have a voice in the new government and all citizens have their rights protected."

But Russia does not want to see Iraqi oil under Washington's control and stands staunchly against the proposed U.S. measures, saying the UN should play a central role in Iraq's postwar reconstruction.

Moscow says UN inspectors must verify that Iraq no longer has weapons of mass destruction before sanctions can be lifted. It has called for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head the oil-for-food program, controlling oil sales and oil field development until the establishment of an internationally recognized Iraqi government.

Blair is in a good position to help surmount the impasse. Interfax cited unnamed Russian diplomatic sources as saying that London is closer than Washington to Moscow's position and praising Britain's "restraining role" regarding the United States.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov last week also suggested that Russia might back a French proposal to partially suspend sanctions. "We are talking now about a partial and temporary suspension of [UN] sanctions [against Iraq]," Ivanov said. "As for the complete lifting of the sanctions, this must be decided in accordance with the relevant resolutions adopted earlier by United Nations Security Council."

London fully backs Washington's position in public, although Blair is said to have wanted a greater postwar role for the UN. He has meanwhile tried to mend the trans-Atlantic rift over Iraq, saying in an interview with the "Financial Times" published yesterday that siding with Washington is the best way to influence U.S. actions.

Speaking yesterday at a news conference ahead of his trip, Blair outlined the coalition's goals in Iraq. "Our first priority has got to be to stabilize the country. The second is the humanitarian situation. And the third, and we can take our time about this and so we should, is to make sure that we investigate the weapons of mass destruction, and we will do that. And as I say every time I am asked, I remain confident they will be found," Blair said.

Moscow's position on the U.S. draft resolution is an ostensible reversal of its prewar position, when it lobbied for the lifting of sanctions against former President Saddam Hussein's administration.

Russia -- one of five permanent members of the 15-state Security Council, with veto power over any resolution -- joined Germany and fellow permanent member France in opposing the decision by Britain and the United States to go to war.

Moscow based criticism of the war in part on claims of defending Russian economic interests, which include oil contracts worth billions of dollars and a Soviet-era state debt of around $8 billion.

Russia now hopes to play a role in Iraq's postwar reconstruction. While analysts have said that would be unlikely, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow said in an interview in today's "Izvestiya" that Washington would "welcome" Moscow's involvement.

The Russian finance minister, meanwhile, today made another conciliatory statement, saying Moscow might write off some of Iraq's debt and reschedule part of it, but predicted a "big debate" on the issue, ITAR-TASS reported.

Blair has in the past gone out of his way to cultivate ties with Putin, who has indicated that he does not want Moscow's position on Iraq to spoil relations with Washington.

Prikhodko said the two leaders -- meeting today at Putin's country residence outside Moscow -- would discuss relations between Russia and the European Union, as well as a planned visit by Putin to London in late June.