Russian, Iraqi $40 billion deal may hurt U.S. foreign relations
Sunday, August 18, 2002
MOSCOW -- Iraq and Russia are close to signing a $40 billion economic cooperation plan, Iraq's ambassador said Saturday, a deal that could put Moscow at odds with the United States as it considers a military attack against Baghdad.
The statement by Ambassador Abbas Khalaf came amid indications that Russia, despite its strong support for the post-Sept. 11 antiterrorism coalition, is maintaining or improving ties with Iran and North Korea, which together with Iraq are the countries President Bush has labeled the "axis of evil."
Washington is trying to rally support for a possible invasion of Iraq, which the United States accuses of supporting terrorism and of rebuilding its banned weapons of mass destruction program, but many U.S. allies are resisting the push.
German and U.S. officials confirmed Saturday that the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, Dan Coats, had questioned German officials about Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's opposition to attacking Iraq, an indication that Schroeder has irked Washington. Russia, a longtime ally of Iraq, has forcefully warned against a possible U.S. invasion.
Many opponents argue that an invasion cannot be justified without firm proof that the regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
The chief United Nations weapons inspector, Hans Blix, said that he can't say with certainty whether Iraq has such weapons. "If we knew -- if we had real evidence that they have weapons of mass destruction -- we would bring it to the Security Council," he said.
Blix spoke while waiting for Iraq's response to a letter from Secretary-General Kofi Annan urging the country to allow the return of weapons inspectors, who left in December 1998.
The pending Russia-Iraq economic deal is likely to be seen by Washington as another blow to its efforts to marshal backing for an attack. On Saturday, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said only "We're confident that Russia understands its obligations under United Nations Security Council resolutions and that they'll abide by them."
Sanctions imposed by the Security Council after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons have been destroyed along with the long-range missiles to deliver them.
Moscow has supported lifting the U.N. sanctions, hoping that would allow Baghdad to start paying off its $7 billion Soviet-era debt and help expand trade. The Russian Foreign Ministry said Saturday it had no comment on reports of an imminent economic cooperation agreement.
The agreement, which envisions new cooperation in the fields of oil, irrigation, agriculture, transportation, railroads and electrical energy, will most likely be signed in Baghdad in the beginning of September, Khalaf said.
Khalaf emphasized that the new cooperation deal, which is to include new projects as well as the modernization of some Soviet-built infrastructure, would not violate the sanctions.
Russia as leverage
In the current standoff with the United States, Iraq is counting on Russia to use its leverage in the U.N. Security Council and other diplomatic channels to deprive Washington of international support for a military operation, Khalaf said.
"First of all we need moral, political and diplomatic support. Because Iraq knows how to defend itself," he said. "The main thing for us is that American aggression does not go through the U.N. Security Council and that America does not receive a U.N. mandate. ... Let America act alone as an aggressor. It will be condemned from all sides."
Khalaf said he saw no contradiction between Russia's friendship with Iraq and its ties with Washington, which have strengthened since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We see friendship among various countries and civilized peoples of the world as a positive step. Any enmity brings harm to a country," he said.
Under Putin, Russian foreign policy has sought to create a network of alliances to counterbalance alleged U.S. domination of international affairs. Although Putin has moved Russia closer to West -- including increasing contacts with NATO and not raising objections to U.S. forces in Georgia and in former Soviet Central Asia -- he also has pursued relations with countries that are anathema to the United States.
Last month, Russia announced a 10-year plan for nuclear cooperation with Iran. Under the plan, Russia would build five reactors in addition to the one currently under construction at Bushehr, Iran. Washington fears such cooperation could help Iran develop nuclear weapons.
This week, the Kremlin announced that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will visit Russia later in August for the second summer in a row.