UN considers French plan to lift oil embargo on Iraq

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST glimpse of a possible break in the diplomatic log-jam over future United Nations policy on Iraq surfaced yesterday when the French government stepped forward with a controversial proposal to lift the eight-year oil embargo on the country and to create a scaled-down regime of weapons inspections.

As the Security Council was preparing last night to study the three-point proposal, there were tentative indications that Britain, customarily allied with the United States in opposing any dilution of UN measures on Iraq, may be willing to consider it as a way of bridging divisions on future Iraq policy. This could leave Washington isolated at the UN.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one British official said London was not yet in a position to consider the lifting of the oil embargo. He went on to concede, however, that some trade-off may be possible in the Security Council involving ending the embargo and simultaneously placing new controls on Iraq to bar it from developing new weapons of mass destruction.

In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement arguing that, in the wake of December's cruise missile strikes on Iraq by Britain and the US, any notion of returning to thestatus quo ante, involving both invasive inspections by the UN and the maintenance of all sanctions, would be unrealistic.

"France thinks that it is time for the Security Council to consider that no progress can be made by an illusory resumption of previous methods," it said. Daniel Vaillant, Minister for Parliamentary Relations, added: "France is proposing something that will allow us to get out of the current impasse."

The diplomatic moves coincided with fresh military activity yesterday over the northern Iraq no-fly zone. The Pentagon confirmed that US warplanes had fired on Iraqi anti-aircraft missile sites in the region. It was the third such incident this week. The no-fly zones are patrolled by both American and British jets.

"There are indications that coalition aircraft were fired upon at least once by at least one Iraqi surface-to-air missile," a spokesman said. "The coalition air crews acted in self-defence." He said all coalition planes returned safely and denied Iraqi claims that its forces had "hit" one "enemy" plane.

Under UN policy, Iraq is allowed to export a limited volume of oil. The revenue from the exports is under strict UN control and can only be spent on importing foods and medicines. It is unclear whether France, which has long had an eye on helping Iraq to revive its oil industry, envisages maintaining such controls if the embargo itself is lifted.

More vexing is the issue of how controls on Iraq's suspected weapons programmes could be maintained without the return of the Unscom inspectors, the special UN commission charged with hunting down Iraq's armaments. Clearly suggesting that Unscom itself should be shelved, Paris said it envisaged a new inspection team "under a reformed commission, in order to guarantee its independence and reinforce its professionalism". This appeared to be a swipe at Richard Butler, the Unscom chief, who has recently denied allegations that his inspectors had become infiltrated by American spies.