Russia exerts new pressure for early lifting of sanctions on Iraq

MOSCOW - Russia is stepping up its opposition to the United Nations' sanctions against Iraq with new challenges aimed at undermining the rules and bringing Saddam Hussein's regime out of isolation.

The state-controlled airline Aeroflot is negotiating with Iraq on resuming flights to Baghdad, and Russian business executives have flown to the Iraqi capital for talks on reviving trade.

Russia has long claimed that the sanctions don't work, but avoided confrontation with the United States and Britain, the two main supporters of the controls. Moscow has changed its strategy in recent weeks, encouraged by growing international questioning of the sanctions.

Moscow has a lot to gain by aiding Iraq, a Soviet-era ally and important customer. The cash-strapped Russian government hopes helping to end sanctions will mean lucrative oil and weapons contracts with Baghdad.

''Russia has gotten frustrated that its urges to revise the sanction regime were not getting positive responses from the western members of the United Nations,'' said Boris Makarenko, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

Aeroflot officials say only technical issues remain to be resolved before flights are resumed.

The United States and Britain oppose the resumption of air service between Moscow and Baghdad, arguing that civil flights to Iraq constitute an economic resource, and therefore violate the sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. The United Nations said sanctions would remain in place until its observers verify Baghdad has dismantled all its weapons of mass destruction.

Russia says it strictly observes the sanctions, but claims that the rules do not explicitly prohibit civilian flights.

''As before, we take the standpoint that in the corresponding resolutions of the U.N. Security Council there are no bans on carrying out regular passenger flights to Baghdad, and we will be ready to restore them as soon as possible,'' the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday.

Analysts say Moscow has been encouraged by signs of other nations opposing the sanctions. Jordan has also considered resuming air service, while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez got red-carpet treatment in a defiant visit to Baghdad last month.

''I think the Russians are seeing an opening where they can take the position to what's a little closer to what they would like to do without it being quite as dangerous vis-a-vis their relations to the United States,'' said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C.

Several delegations from Russian government agencies and state-controlled oil companies have made trips to Iraq in recent months. Russia has also sent humanitarian missions to Iraq without awaiting permission from the U.N. sanctions committee - though it got U.N. permission for the latest flight, on Sunday.

Some of the humanitarian missions have been mixed with Russia's business and political interests. The Sunday shipment of medicine was accompanied by a delegation from pipeline company Stroytransgaz, which wants to boost ties and possibly open an office in Baghdad.

Russian companies say they are doing what makes good business sense.

''Aeroflot does not get involved in politics - our job is to carry passengers,'' said Alexander Lopukhin, deputy director of Aeroflot.

Resuming flights would boost Russia's status in Iraq. And President Vladimir Putin wants Iraq to pay back some $8 billion on Soviet-era debt.

Challenges to the sanctions began under former President Boris Yeltsin, but Putin shows signs of wanting to step up Moscow's opposition.

''There is strong pressure to develop ties with Iraq, and it is a large debtor,'' said Alexander Pikayev, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ''Putin needs somehow to react to that.''


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