Leading Article: Lift sanctions, stop bombing and start talking to Baghdad

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The Independent Culture
AFTER NINE years of pressure, Saddam Hussein is still firmly ensconced in power. Sanctions have failed to make any impression on the dictator. Finally, we may have reached a crunch point where the sanctions are abandoned in a tit-for-tat deal whereby United Nations weapons inspectors are allowed back into the country. The deadline at the UN for the latest offer-cum- threat runs out this week.

Baghdad is not happy. It describes the British-backed proposals as "abhorrent" and "malicious". In reality, the proposals at last show some common sense. The Independent has consistently opposed the sanctions that were imposed on Iraq. They have only encouraged ordinary Iraqis to feel solidarity with their embattled and otherwise loathed regime. Crucially, sanctions have also allowed the leaders of a corrupt administration to make themselves even richer than they already were. Because power in Iraq is so centralised, Saddam's family has been able to exploit its privileged access to otherwise unavailable goods, by establishing a highly lucrative monopoly in their resale.

The lifting of sanctions will be doubly welcome if it is accompanied by the return of UN weapons inspectors who can attempt to provide guarantees that Iraq does not breach the promises that it made to the UN about its weapon stocks.

Last week, France refused even to attend the vote on the issue, because of its unhappiness at the proposed approach; Russia and China both abstained. Now, however, the French seem more amenable to the idea. Certainly, that is what the Iraqis think; they are bitter that the French have changed their line.

The issue looks likely to come to a head on Friday. In recent weeks there have been two short-term extensions of the oil-for-food deal. If the inspectors are not permitted, then even that deal may conceivably lapse; until now, a series of six-month extensions has made possible a form of roll-over.

Meanwhile, the air war continues, almost forgotten by the rest of the world and ignored by Saddam himself - though not by the civilians who have suffered so heavily in the raids.

The existing policy of bombs, sanctions, and diplomacy has got nowhere. Now, at least there is a chance.

Iraq could still refuse to co-operate. In practice, if France and Russia are part of the package Baghdad may accept that this is the best offer it is likely to get. It would be a long way from getting rid of Saddam Hussein. But at least it would be a start.