UNITED NATIONS -- The UN Security Council has lifted a major sanctions program on Iraq in a move aimed at restoring the country to the international standing it occupied before the 2003 war and Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
In a special session presided over by U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, the council voted to allow Iraq to pursue a peaceful civilian nuclear energy program, and in a symbolic step, lifted sanctions barring it from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq's constitution bars it from acquiring such weapons and Baghdad is a party to international nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile treaties.
The council also voted to return control of Iraq's oil and natural gas revenue to the government on June 30, 2011 and to terminate all remaining activities of the controversial oil-for-food program, which ran from 1996-2003 and helped ordinary Iraqis cope with sanctions.
Hailed As 'A Milestone'
The decision marks a major political achievement for Baghdad's new government and brings the country closer to regaining full sovereignty.
UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon called today's meeting a "milestone" on Iraq's path to stability and normality. He also praised recent agreements in Baghdad that ended a protracted period of internal political struggles.
"I commend Iraq's leaders for their recent agreements ending months of political deadlock," he said. "These efforts should help pave the way for a national partnership government and for the first peaceful transition between elected governments under full Iraqi sovereignty. I urge Iraq's political blocs to honor the agreements and move swiftly to conclude the process."
The lifting of the sanctions has long been a priority for Iraq's new government.
Speaking at the council's session, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hosyar Zebari reaffirmed his government's intent to achieve removal of all remaining sanctions and to reestablish Iraq's status as an active participant in international institutions and a significant contributor to the UN activities.
"The adoption of these important resolutions marks the beginning of the end of the sanctions regime and restrictions on Iraq's sovereignty, independence, and recovery," he said. "Our people will rejoice for having turned a chapter on the aggressive, belligerent, and defiant behavior of the previous regime toward international law and legitimacy."
Praise, And Caution
The U.S. has been a major supporter of Baghdad in bid to have the sanctions lifted and today's meeting today was held on Washington's initiative.
Biden commended the Iraqi government for the progress and achievements but also cautioned that challenges lie ahead.
"Iraq faces further challenges on the road to security and prosperity. Attacks by extremists remain an unacceptable aspect of daily life in Iraq. We are particularly concerned about recent attacks to target innocents because of their faith, including both Christians and Muslims, and to lash out at security forces working to keep the country safe," he said.
In a statement the council said it recognized "the positive developments in Iraq and that the situation now... is significantly different from that which existed" after Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
While today's council vote voids sanctions imposed on Iraq from the days of the Hussein regime, differences remain between Iraq and Kuwait. Baghdad says it is committed to settling disputes in bilateral negotiations with its neighbor.
Among the unresolved issues are the efforts to locate missing Kuwaiti citizens and third party nationals, demarcation of the Iraqi-Kuwait border, and resolving war reparations.